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UMass Amherst students could face discipline for violating pandemic protocols in wake of school lockdown

Students are allowed limited shopping during the lockdown at UMass Amherst.
Students are allowed limited shopping during the lockdown at UMass Amherst.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Officials at University of Massachusetts Amherst, which went into lockdown on Sunday in response to a COVID-19 surge on campus, said they have referred more than 350 students to the university conduct office for alleged violations of pandemic-related protocols between Jan. 1 and Feb. 5.

The students allegedly exceeded room capacity, back-to-campus quarantine regulations, and rules around masks, social distancing, and contact tracing, university officials said. Disciplinary action could include suspension or being kicked out of campus housing, university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said Tuesday.

Blaguszewski acknowledged student gatherings “in large and small groups” had contributed to the recent outbreak. On Sunday, university chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said the school would go on lockdown for at least two weeks in response to the rising number of cases since students returned for the spring semester.

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“Let this moment be a stark reminder to any of you who may have been cavalier about COVID-19 that your individual behavior has a profound impact on everyone in your community,” Subbaswamy wrote.

Spring semester classes began last Monday. From that Tuesday to Thursday, the latest three days of testing results, there were 298 positive tests. There are now 398 active cases, Subbaswamy said.

All students, on campus and off, are required to stay in their residences. They are only allowed out for twice-weekly coronavirus testing, to get food, or for medical necessity. Sporting events and practices have been canceled. Officials said the campus would be considered at high risk” for COVID-19 until at least Feb. 21.

Sonya Epstein, president of the Student Government Association, called the rise in cases “extremely concerning.”

“There needs to be action taken both on the student side and the administration side to ensure that we are all safe [and] healthy,” Epstein said.

Dylan Jacobs, a freshman, said he supported measures to slow the spread of the virus.

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“The cases have been rising pretty fast, and I think it’s necessary to lock things down,” he said. Yet some students feel the lockdown is excessive because it prevents them from getting to work, he added.

Freshman Cameron Prescott, 19, said he hopes the lockdown will have a positive impact. He criticized the university for allowing him and his roommate to move in without negative test results.

“Not to mention that the quarantine we had when we first arrived on campus had poorly enforced rules that many students broke without any repercussions,” he said.

Adam Lechowicz, a member of the university’s Student Government Association, said he met with administrators when they made the decision to have freshmen return to campus in the spring.

”I think this [spike] was entirely predictable, and almost all blame lies with UMass [administrators] for this situation,” Lechowicz said by e-mail.

”The generally low COVID case rates of the fall semester largely prove that the existing off-campus students and limited numbers of on-campus students (with in-person classes) caused few problems,” he said.

In announcing the lockdown rules, Subbaswamy said it may “seem like drastic measures.”

“But faced with the surge in cases we are experiencing in our campus community, we have no choice but to take these steps,” he wrote in his letter to the campus. “By acting aggressively now, we are confident we can contain this surge and more quickly return to normal operations, including a resumption of in-person classes and organized student activities.”

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Town officials in Amherst, meanwhile, announced that bars and restaurants would continue to close at 9:30 p.m. and maintain 25 percent seating capacity. Statewide, Governor Charlie Baker’s order lifting the early closing time and increasing seating capacity to 40 percent took effect Monday.

Town officials said they were keeping the tighter restrictions in place after consulting with the state Department of Public Health and “follows steps taken by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in response to a significant increase in COVID-19 positive cases.” The neighboring communities of Hadley and Sunderland are considering similar measures.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.