UMass reverses previous decision to allow all students to return to residence halls

The decision comes only eight days before move in

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Ana Pietrewicz/Daily Collegian

By Cassie McGrath and Will Katcher

The University of Massachusetts is reversing a previous decision regarding on-campus housing for the fall semester, the latest in a series of higher education institutions to do so this week.

Only those in “essential face-to-face classes” will be accommodated in residential halls, in addition to certain students who rely on-campus housing, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told the school community in an email Thursday night.

“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,” the chancellor said.

Face-to-face classes include laboratory, studio and capstone courses, as well as others where virtual instruction is not possible.

Subbaswamy “strongly” discouraged students who will now not be permitted to live on campus from moving to the Amherst area, saying that it would not be “in the interest of public health” to do so. Those students “will not have campus facilities at their disposal,” he said.

“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,” the chancellor said. “These situations will be handled on a case-by case basis, and in most instances will be accommodated.”

Massachusetts has seen a small uptick in a COVID-19 cases in the last several weeks as the state has slowly reopened. On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker warned that he may slow the reopening if cases continue to climb.

Explaining the University’s decision, Subbaswamy wrote that “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.”

UMass is implementing additional testing protocols for the fall and are adopting practices that go beyond federal and state recommendations. The email said that testing will exceed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, for example, the testing of asymptomatic individuals without known exposure to a person with COVID-19.

The University also said they are committed to spending millions of dollars for additional testing, saying in the email, “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.”

However, many students’ plans are disrupted by this decision, as classes are beginning on August 24 and students were expecting to move in as soon as Monday.

“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 wrote. “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.”

The email also addressed concerns about the risk of a mid-semester closure of the campus. Subbaswamy acknowledged this, saying, “the decision not to bring students back to campus is preferable to sending everyone home in the event of an uncontrolled outbreak.”

UMass joins a group of other colleges that have scaled back fall plans in recent weeks. Universities from California and Georgia to Washington, D.C. have announced that they would have an entirely virtual semester or at least begin the fall online.

“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,” Subbaswamy wrote.

Cassie McGrath can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cassiemcgrath_. Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.