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Can colleges ensure off-campus parties don’t turn into super-spreader events?

As students return, neighbors worry about off-campus parties, but colleges won’t deploy COVID police

A Boston University student moved into Warren Towers at Boston University on Tuesday.
A Boston University student moved into Warren Towers at Boston University on Tuesday.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

With thousands of college students moving into the Boston area in the next few weeks, neighbors are growing increasingly worried about who will police large off-campus gatherings and make sure that student parties don’t turn into coronavirus super-spreader events.

Local colleges planning to reopen in the coming weeks have issued rules governing off-campus students — requiring testing and asking that they follow social distancing measures and that they quarantine if exposed to the virus. But few institutions have offered details on how they plan to closely monitor off-campus life.

Across the country as students arrived for the fall semester, parties have followed. The weekend before classes started at East Carolina University earlier this month, campus and Greenville police said they broke up 20 parties, including one packed with 400 students. Last weekend, a viral video showed a massive gathering at an off-campus apartment complex near the University of North Georgia with few students wearing masks. And clusters of students testing positive for coronavirus have popped up around fraternity and sorority houses in many college towns.

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Michigan State University this week did an about-face and moved classes to online as officials feared they could no longer control the spread of the illness. The University of Notre Dame temporarily switched to remote learning Tuesday following an off-campus party and a spike in cases. And, with Boston College, Northeastern University, Boston University, and Tufts set to open in the coming weeks neighbors say similar outbreaks are inevitable here.

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“That terrifies me,” said Cynthia Korhonen, 66, a Brighton resident who lives in an apartment complex near Boston College. She said BC has provided neighbors with little information about how the university will deal with enforcing mask and social-distance rules off campus. “I like students, but will they be wearing masks? And how will it be enforced?”

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That’s an open question in many neighborhoods saturated with college students. And the prospect of involving local law enforcement has become a more delicate matter after the summer protests, in many cases led by young people, over aggressive police tactics in Black neighborhoods and efforts to reduce funding of the police.

BC said it has a nearly two-decade relationship with the Boston Police Department to ensure that student events and parties around the campus don’t get out of hand on the weekends and disrupt neighbors. BC pays a detail of Boston police officers to drive through the neighborhoods and respond, along with college officials, to complaints. Boston University and Northeastern University have similar programs, according to the Boston Police Department.

But, the Boston police said that while officers would be on the lookout for large parties, they would not be on corona-patrol.

“This has nothing to do with COVID-19 issues, and our officers will not be out there being the social distancing police,” said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, department spokesman.

Williams Evans, the BC director of public safety and former Boston police commissioner, confirmed the limited role of Boston police.

“They’re doing nothing new, not taking any more aggressive stand than before,” Evans said.

Instead, Evans said, BC is launching an information campaign to educate students about the coronavirus rules and encourage them to behave appropriately and safely. BC officials have also been reminding students in reopening webinars that they could face stiff sanctions, including a loss of housing privileges, if they are found breaking university and COVID-related rules.

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“We’re relying on having great students here and [them] obeying the rules,” Evans said.

Christian Guma, a rising senior who is president of the Undergraduate Government at BC, said he believes his fellow students will take their responsibility seriously because they don’t want the school to shut down again.

“There is no doubt it will be a very big challenge,” he said.

Neighbors, however, hope the police will be extra vigilant for large gatherings. Boston City Councilor Liz Breadon, who represents Allston and Brighton, said she has heard from many constituents who are worried about off-campus events. Breadon recently sent a letter to BC president William Leahy urging him to move classes all online this fall.

“One big concern for the neighbors is that they’re worried that [students] are not going to follow the rules, they’re not going to physically distance, they’re not going to wear masks when they are out in public, and that they’re going to continue to do what they always do, which is have large parties,” Breadon said.

She also worries whether off-campus students will abide by quarantine rules if one of their roommates tests positive.

“It just takes a few people not taking it seriously to put a match to the fire,” Breadon said.

Diane Kline, secretary of the Radnor Neighborhood Association, said Tom Keating, the vice president of governmental and community affairs at BC, called her and her husband last week to explain the school’s reopening plans. But, she said the plans for students living on the BC campus sound much stricter than those for students living in the neighborhood. When classes shut down in March it was a partying free-for-all, she said.

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“When parties happen, on-campus students will be coming off campus, and is that going to be controlled in any way?” she said.

Kline asked members of her neighborhood association to call Boston police if they see students without masks or large groups not practicing social distancing.

In Western Massachusetts, the town of Amherst is taking a different approach.

Although the University of Massachusetts Amherst earlier this month reversed its decision to bring a large portion of its 30,000 students back to campus, many had already signed leases and moved into rental units in town, and they are sticking around, said Lynn Griesemer, president of the Amherst Town Council.

So the town is helping to pay for an ambassador program with UMass aimed at easing the direct burden on police officers to respond to coronavirus rule-breakers. The program relies on about 10 college students and a college official to monitor for social distancing and mask compliance at student events off campus this fall, said Griesemer.

Police will still be available, but the ambassadors will be the first line of defense, trying to educate students on appropriate behavior and what isn’t allowed, she said.

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The protests following George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody in May, and vocal efforts in the Amherst area to defund police, have sensitized the community to when police should be called, she said.

“The social and very volatile situation we find ourselves in … for all those reasons, this ambassador effort is a much more solid approach,” Griesemer said. “It’s much more peer to peer.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.