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Amherst Town Council wants changes to UMass return-to-school plan

  • University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy listens to his introduction by Tony Maroulis during the annual UMass Community Breakfast held at the Campus Center on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman is in the foreground. —File Photo



Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2020

AMHERST — Requirements that all University of Massachusetts students returning to campus be tested for COVID-19 and that those coming from states considered virus hot spots enter quarantine for two weeks aren’t enough keep the community healthy, according to town officials.

In a 10-0 vote, with District 4 councilors Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber abstaining, the Town Council Monday called on UMass and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy to work with the town on amending a return-to-school plan, as soon as possible, to better protect the well-being of all residents, including students living in off-campus rentals.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said a response to a letter of concern he sent July 10, received Monday from Subbaswamy, continues to demonstrate that the university will not be treating all students, whether living on campus or off campus, the same.

Bockelman argues that students will socialize both on campus and off. Because of this, the once-a-week testing for all students living on campus, and for off-campus students with either a meal plan or at least one in-person class, is insufficient, he said.

“We want them to provide the same kind of health protections and support to the students who live off campus as to the students who live on campus,” Bockelman told the council. “I think it’s a false division they are making, and I don’t think it’s a good one.”

Subbaswamy wrote that UMass shares the town’s concerns.

“These concerns are reflected in the university’s approach to testing and a commitment to healthy behaviors that applies to students living in residence halls as well as those choosing to rent properties in Amherst and nearby towns,” Subbaswamy wrote.

But Bockelman said UMass responded to only a portion of his worries. “They have heard our concerns and they have addressed some of them,” he said.

However, in a meeting Tuesday, Bockelman and Subbaswamy had what Bockelman characterized as a “productive conversation.”

Enforcement at issue

One concern is how vigorous enforcement will be of the UMass agreement students are required to sign. While the agreement calls on students to maintain social distance from others and wear masks and face coverings when leaving their dorm room, enforcement could fall to town police or Amherst health officials.

“We worry about possible friction if police are asked to respond to each of these situations,” Bockelman said.

In a written report to the council, Bockelman noted, “We are told from large landlords that parents are seeking to rent apartments so that their students can have ‘a true college experience.’”

In a statement from UMass, officials note education will be the key. “The university has promised that it will launch a comprehensive public education campaign about its importance and the responsible behaviors that we expect of all our students, wherever they reside.”

Bockelman said he also believes UMass should provide isolation and quarantine on campus for any student, even those living in rental homes and apartment complexes.

“We worry about if there is an outbreak — our biggest concern is in the public health of our community,” Bockelman said.

Councilors concerned

Councilors also expressed disappointment in the response from UMass.

At Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said the town has worked hard to forge an effective relationship with UMass over the past 18 years she has been an elected official, and questioned why the university’s initial response came 10 days after Bockelman’s letter.

“The statement that students engaged in remote learning who choose not to return to campus or the surrounding area are encouraged to sign the agreement as well, is, in a word, garbage,” Brewer said.

She described a situation in which off-campus rentals this summer are being used as “party shacks.”

“UMass is not being our partner here,” Brewer said.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said she is concerned that without enough testing and contact tracing, any COVID-19 will spread quickly. The university, she said, needs to isolate carriers on campus instead of having them be obligated to return to their parents’ home to quarantine.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said the university has to offer on-campus locations where students who fall ill can recover, like Amherst and Hampshire colleges will have.

“I think that the most important thing is that UMass must provide the isolation and quarantine for the students,” Pam saiod.

Meanwhile, the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham regional and Pelham school committees endorsed Bockelman’s letter, understanding that the lack of consequences for not social distancing could harm the health of everyone in Amherst. So far, Amherst, with 103 cases of coronavirus, has not been hard hit by the viral illness.

“Nothing will affect that more than arriving student populations and their behavior,” said Amherst representative Peter Demling.

Among the Five Colleges, only UMass and Hampshire College have invited all students back to campus, though Hampshire has a significantly smaller student population, with fall enrollment anticipated at 550 to 600 students.

Smith, Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges have invited just freshmen and sophomores back to campus in the fall, in addition to some other students whose situations require them to be on campus. Smith has the second-highest student population of the Five Colleges, with over 2,400 undergraduates typically studying in Northampton, according to the college’s website.