The University of Massachusetts Amherst changed its fall reopening plan Thursday, less than three weeks before the start of the semester, announcing that students whose classwork is completely remote will no longer have the option of living on campus.
Additionally, the university is now urging that remote students stay home and don't move even to the Amherst area for the school year. Students taking classes that require being face-to-face, like laboratory or capstone courses, and others with particular living situations that require them to be on campus will still be allowed there, the school's chancellor said in an email sent to students and their families.
The announcement comes with some coronavirus metrics rising in Massachusetts, and as colleges and universities nationwide determine if it's safe to bring students back for the fall semester.
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"Quite simply, when we make a clear-eyed assessment of the public health data and comparable reopening attempts that are playing out across the country, we feel that we have no choice but to make the difficult decision to enact these changes to our fall plan," Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said.
Under the original reopening plan, announced June 29, most of UMass Amherst's courses were set to be taught remotely, but students had the option to live on campus under certain restrictions.
The semester is set to begin Aug. 24.
"I realize that today’s announcement will cause disruption for many of you and is a major departure from the plan we released in June," Subbaswamy said in the email, adding that "the proliferation of the pandemic" altered the conditions that the university had carefully planned for under the plan announced earlier this summer.
Massachusetts' coronavirus testing rate has ticked up slightly since late June, and active cases have been steady or climbing for the last month. Some experts have called for Gov. Charlie Baker to roll back the commonwealth's coronavirus reopening, especially in light of other states' recent outbreaks.
How Coronavirus Has Grown in Each State — in 1 Chart
This graph shows how the number of coronavirus cases have grown in Massachusetts, in the context of the other U.S. states, dating to the early days of the pandemic. It shows how many cases have been diagnosed each day in each state since their 500th cases. Select a state from the dropdown to highlight its track.
Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC
Universities around New England and the country have been struggling with whether to bring students back for the fall, and if so, how to do it safely.
NBC10 Boston has reached out to other UMass schools to see if they will enact similar changes. A representative for Umass Dartmouth said administrators are analyzing the situation and will have more details on the re-opening plan after that's done.
Subbaswamy said that, in making Thursday's decision, administrators noted there is a risk of having to close campus in the middle of the semester, and that keeping many students home "is preferable to sending everyone home in the event of an uncontrolled outbreak."
He also noted that the move would make COVID-19 testing and contact tracing on campus more effective. The university plans to offer testing beyond what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are suggesting, Subbaswamy said.
The decision factored in input from UMass Amherst faculty and staff, as well as members of the community in the town of Amherst, he said.
More on the Reopening of Colleges
Read UMass Amherst's full email to students and families below:
August 6, 2020
To the Campus Community:
I am writing to you this evening to announce significant changes to our fall reopening plan.
The worsening conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic nationally have led us to make the difficult decision to significantly reduce our campus population for the fall. While we remain committed to our previously announced instructional plan, regrettably, we are reversing our previously announced offer to provide on-campus housing for students whose coursework is entirely remote. Only students who are enrolled in essential face-to-face classes, including laboratory, studio and capstone courses, which have been designated in SPIRE, will be accommodated in campus residence halls and be granted access to campus facilities and dining this fall. All other students, whose courses do not require a physical presence on campus, should plan to engage in their studies remotely, from home. In the interest of public health, we also strongly urge our off-campus students whose coursework is remote to refrain from returning to the Amherst area for the fall semester, for they, too, will not have campus facilities at their disposal. Research laboratories, many of which resumed operation in the spring, will remain open.
We recognize there are some students who are dependent on campus housing and dining, and others, including some international students with specific visa requirements and students in healthcare fields, who will need to reside on campus. These situations will be handled on a case-by case basis, and in most instances will be accommodated.
These measures are intended to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 and to more effectively deploy our viral testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation resources. We are moving forward with the implementation of wide-ranging viral testing protocols on campus this fall, adopting practices that go well beyond federal and state recommendations. For instance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently do not recommend testing of asymptomatic individuals without known exposure to a person with COVID-19. However, in these unprecedented times, we are committed to spending millions of dollars for additional testing and the staffing to conduct it. We believe these steps, coupled with a significant reduction in campus population, are the best means to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our community.
I realize that today’s announcement will cause disruption for many of you and is a major departure from the plan we released in June. Our intention at that time, with our plans to conduct most classes remotely while inviting all students back to campus, was to strike a balance between the immersive residential experience so important to our students’ development and the health and safety of the entire community in the Amherst area. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and detailed planning, the proliferation of the pandemic has left us with no choice but to pursue this more stringent approach.
Quite simply, when we make a clear-eyed assessment of the public health data and comparable reopening attempts that are playing out across the country, we feel that we have no choice but to make the difficult decision to enact these changes to our fall plan. Our deliberations were also informed by the health and safety concerns expressed by our faculty and staff and by the citizens and leadership in our host community, Amherst. In addition, we determined that the risk of a mid-semester closing of the campus is real, and that making the decision not to bring students back to campus is preferable to sending everyone home in the event of an uncontrolled outbreak.
We will make every effort to address your concerns and questions as they arise and to update you regularly as the semester approaches. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit our reopening website, which we are currently updating to include frequently asked questions related to today’s announcement. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments and concerns.
As we grapple with the implications of this announcement, I urge you to keep in mind that you are not alone. Whether studying or working virtually or in person, you are a member of the UMass community, guided by the call to “be revolutionary.” In the face of adversity, we must all be inspired to think in new ways, to challenge convention, to dream big, and to make a difference. I am convinced that in these difficult times, we will strengthen the ties that bind us and emerge stronger and better prepared to take on any new challenges.
I am deeply grateful for your patience and understanding. And I look forward to the day that we will all be together again.
Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy