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Are Boston-area colleges having second thoughts after UNC coronavirus clusters? Doesn’t look like it

Boston University is one of many Boston-area schools that are moving ahead with their plans to bring students back to campus under an array of safety protocols.
Boston University is one of many Boston-area schools that are moving ahead with their plans to bring students back to campus under an array of safety protocols.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Now that COVID-19 clusters have forced the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to abruptly cancel in-person classes for undergraduates, do any Boston-area colleges plan to make a similar move?

The short answer is no for a number of schools contacted by the Globe Tuesday; Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Northeastern University, and Tufts University all said they’re moving ahead with their plans to bring students back to campus under an array of safety protocols.

Tufts, though, has drawn the ire of two community groups, Somerville and Medford Our Revolution and Somerville Stands Together, who on Wednesday plan to protest the school’s plan, while social distancing, outside Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco’s home.

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“Tufts University’s plan to bring students back to campus and to resume in-person classes puts the health and safety of our communities at unnecessary risk,” the Our Revolution PILOT Working Group said in a statement Monday announcing the planned demonstration.

Patrick Collins, a Tufts spokesman, said via e-mail Tuesday that the university has worked closely with city officials in Medford and Somerville on the reopening plan and also held a community meeting to speak with neighbors. He said Tufts remains committed to reviewing its plans with both cities to address their concerns.

“We already have de-densified campus by moving many graduate programs online, have pledged to make our data available on a public dashboard and provide PPE to all employees and contractors, and are working with local officials on the possibility of free testing for neighbors,” Collins wrote.

He also touted the testing protocols that Tufts has implemented on campus.

“Our testing regimen will allow us to control potential spread by identifying and isolating students who are sick with the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms,” Collins said. “Upon arrival at Tufts, out-of-region students will need to have at least three negative COVID-19 tests before their quarantine ends – above and beyond state requirements. Once the out-of-region students have completed their quarantine, in-region students will arrive and will remain in quarantine until they have received one negative result to their initial COVID-19 test.”

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Tufts, Collins added, believes its “comprehensive plans which include regular testing, contact tracing, quarantine procedures and isolation protocols will allow us to resume classes and residential life safely.” As of Tuesday, Collins said, more than 1,700 tests had been completed without any positives.

Boston University is also moving forward with its fall reopening, said spokesman Colin Riley.

“It has not affected our plans,” Riley said via e-mail Monday morning, when asked if BU might consider reverting to remote-only classes in light of the UNC outbreaks.

Students will also have the option of remote learning, BU has said previously.

“All students returning to campus will be required, through a digital agreement, to commit to a set of Health Commitments and Expectations including face coverings, symptom attestation, testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation,” said a recent statement posted to BU’s website.

In addition, BU is disclosing positive cases and tests publicly in an online dashboard, which as of Tuesday afternoon was reporting the school had processed 6,472 tests since July 27, and that the positive test rate stood at 0.19 percent.

Coming back to a campus in New England, where positive test rates are low compared to other parts of the country, can be done safely, whereas UNC was particularly vulnerable, according to Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences and the school’s COVID-19 coordinator.

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“UNC was at a disadvantage out of the gate because their state-wide testing positivity rate was so high,” said McGee, who’s also a former executive editor of The American Journal of Bioethics, via e-mail. “Colleges reopening in states where there was a great deal of community spread will be hard pressed to remain open.”

However, McGee said, in New England “universities have a fighting chance of controlling campus spread if we test regularly and have a high level of compliance with mask wearing and physical distancing. The fate of our Fall 2020 semester is in the hands of our students and staff and the public health decisions they make.”

Boston College is also forging ahead with its plan to welcome back students to campus.

“We are proceeding with our plans for the start of the fall semester beginning on August 31,” said BC spokesman Jack Dunn via e-mail. “We are monitoring the situation at peer institutions and can learn from their experiences, but we believe that our mix of in-class, remote, and hybrid learning, coupled with extensive testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation protocols, will enable us to proceed with the fall semester” at the end of the month.

Northeastern also plans to move “cautiously” ahead with its reopening plans, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“Northeastern has undertaken countless extraordinary measures to plan for a safe fall semester,” said spokeswoman Shannon Nargi in an e-mail message. “This includes launching a large-scale testing program, strict protocols around masking and healthy distancing, and completely re-imagined approaches to dining and residential life. We are moving cautiously and carefully ahead with the plans we announced in June.”

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In June, Northeastern said it would let students choose between coming to class or participating online as it reopens its campus in the fall, and that the school has invested in new technology and workers outfitting classrooms to prepare for the start of classes Sept. 9.

In a statement Monday announcing the cancellation of in-person undergraduate classes, UNC officials said their residence halls had been filled at less than 60 percent capacity to start the semester, while less than 30 percent “of our total classroom seats [had been] taught in-person.”

The clusters at the school, which as of Monday had resulted in 177 students in isolation and 349 in quarantine both on- and off-campus, were linked in some cases to student housing, off-campus parties, and packed bars, the Associated Press reported.

Harrison L. Marshall Jr., a partner at McGuireWoods LLP in Charlotte, N.C., a firm that advises colleges, said Tuesday that the debacle at Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship university, was also on the minds of officials at area private schools.

He said a group of general counsel from some private colleges in North Carolina met Monday via Zoom as UNC announced its revamped remote-only plan for undergrads.

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“The consensus of that group was ‘If you are too big to test everyone, you are too big to reopen,’ ” Marshall wrote.

At Brandeis, which enrolls about 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students, a hybrid system involving in-person and remote learning options remains the plan for the fall, a spokesperson said Tuesday.

In a Friday letter to students, faculty, and staff, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz said the school last week welcomed more than 400 students back to campus and that a successful reopening depends on everyone complying with public health requirements.

Those many requirements include physical distancing and limiting gathering sizes to 10 people; mandatory face coverings, except places where individuals have no contact with others, such as students in their own rooms; and a 30-minute period in between classes to allow for students and faculty to clean their desks or work areas, Brandeis said in a prior statement.

“It will not be easy, and it will not be normal,” Liebowitz wrote Friday. “But I believe the ability to have students on campus, and the benefits it will bring, is well worth the effort.”

Material from the Associated Press and prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.