Amid COVID Outbreak, UMass Amherst Prohibits Students From Leaving Dorms for Walks

More than 430 coronavirus cases have been reported at the western Massachusetts school in the past week alone, including students and faculty

A sign outside the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, or UMass Amherst
NBC10 Boston, File

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is operating at a high COVID risk level as cases of the coronavirus continue to surge on campus. That means that the campus is effectively locked down, and a number of restrictions have been placed on students, including limiting who can take walks.

A directive for students to self-sequester has been activated at the encouragement of state public health officials to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, according to the school's website. It expects everyone’s cooperation.

For the foreseeable future, all UMass Amherst classes will take place remotely, and students in dormitories and off-campus housing are instructed not to leave their residences except for meals, COVID testing twice per week and medical appointments.

All athletic practices and competitions have been canceled. The near-shutdown on campus will remain in place until at least Feb. 21, and officials will only lift it "if the public health situation improves significantly."

While students are being required to isolate in their dorm rooms, they are not allowed to leave their residence halls to go for a walk, according to the university's website. However, students with dogs are able to take short walks while wearing a mask, though they must practice social distancing and avoid any unnecessary interactions.

The university says students can use trips for food and twice-weekly COVID testing at the Mullins Center as opportunities to take walks to support their health. Another option is virtual fitness classes.

Students living in the same residence hall are not allowed to hang out in each others' rooms, and no guests are allowed in residence halls until further notice. Students are also not allowed to gather in any spaces during this time, UMass Amherst says.

During this time, students are allowed to do laundry and pick up packages in their residence hall, while adhering to distancing and masking requirements.

For those who attend in-person religious services, students have been directed to remain in place and access virtual religious programs and services "as much as possible," the website states.

For students with jobs off campus, the school has set up an Employment Assistance Grant program to support students in need who may be dealing with financial hardship and/or those who rely on income from their employment.

For students considering leaving campus to self-sequester at their homes, the university is directing all students to remain in place out of significant concern that travel may increase the spread of the virus. For students who decide to leave campus anyway, the school's website says it is highly unlikely they will be able to accommodate those students' return to campus.

Students who violate campus restrictions or fail to comply with directives will face disciplinary action, according to the university's website. Punishment may include removal from residence halls and/or suspension.

The university announced its ban on student gatherings of all sizes on Feb. 5, after what school officials described as "a concerning rise" in new positive COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Charlie Baker announces that anyone who accompanies 75 and older residents to their vaccine appointment is also eligible to get the vaccine. This goes into effect on Thursday.

According to the school's website, student socialization in large and small groups, both on-campus and off-campus, contributed to the recent increase in cases of COVID-19 at UMass Amherst.

The university announced Sunday that it had raised the campus risk level from "elevated" to high," effective 2 p.m. on Feb. 7, and that it would stay this way for a minimum of 14 days.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy raised the school's risk level to "high" -- just two days after he deemed it "elevated" -- and imposed a range of sweeping restrictions on campus life.

Massachusetts earned a failing grade for its coronavirus vaccine rollout, named one of the worst in the nation in a Harvard report.

Over 350 University of Massachusetts at Amherst students are already facing disciplinary measures for violating COVID-19 protocols.

More than 430 coronavirus cases have been reported at the western Massachusetts school in the past week alone, including students and faculty. School officials canceled all in-person learning on Sunday as a result of the outbreak.

Contact tracing efforts at UMass Amherst have found that COVID-19 transmission has been "especially prevalent among some undergraduate students not following social distancing and mask protocols," Subbaswamy wrote in a message to the school community.

According to a document provided to the Amherst Town Council, the school has referred 354 students to the conduct office for violations including breaking quarantine rules, exceeding room capacity, failure to wear masks and social distance, failure to comply with contact tracing and more.

Those students could be suspended, removed from on-campus housing, put on probation or formally reprimanded.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that as far as he understands, the situation at UMass Amherst is primarily focused on the freshman class.

"I don't know exactly how they ended up in this situation," he acknowledged.

Baker said the school's decision to essentially "stay in place" for 10 days to two weeks is "not an unusual way" to address the outbreak.

"They're not the first campus to use that as a strategy to reduce the spread," he noted.

The nation's top doctors, including Dr. Anthony Faucci, are concerned that COVID mutations like those found in South Africa, the UK and Brazil, could undo the recent progress.

As a result of the outbreak, the town of Amherst chose to extend capacity limits and a business curfew that were set to loosen on Monday.

The Amherst Board of Health extended the 25% capacity ceiling and the 9:30 p.m. closing time for many industries indefinitely in an emergency order adopted on Sunday, the same day that UMass Amherst officials raised the university's risk level and shuttered in-person activities in the face of nearly 400 active cases.

Neighboring towns are also said to be weighing their own extensions of the business restrictions.

New COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts are trending downward, but health officials are warning people not to let their guard down.
NBC/State House News Service
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