Should UMass bring students back in the spring? Over 1,000 students, parents say yes in petition

Off-campus students have had the vast majority of cases

Nina+Walat

Nina Walat

By Matt Berg, Managing Editor

Dylan Jacobs wants to spend the spring semester of his freshman year on campus.

So do over 1,000 other students, with the support of many parents, who signed a petition advocating for an in-person semester at the University of Massachusetts. It may be the safest bet for a University that has seen a spike in off-campus coronavirus cases, said Jacobs, who started the petition in early September.

“It’s better having kids in dorms where they have to get tested twice a week, rather than having a free-for-all off campus,” said Jacobs, an economics and computer science major, in a phone interview.

Students attending class, using facilities or living on campus are required to be tested twice a week. The University recommends that those living off campus be tested, for free, twice a week at the Mullins Center.

In August, the University suddenly reversed its fall semester plan, moving the majority of classes online and allowing few students to return to campus. Instead of coming to Amherst to meet new friends and explore campus, most freshmen were forced to stay home indefinitely.

“Making the decision not to bring students back to campus is preferable to sending everyone home in the event of an uncontrolled outbreak,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement on Aug. 6.

But if students aren’t invited back to the dorms in spring, Jacobs said, he believes students who are tired of being home will find off-campus housing where University restrictions are almost nonexistent. Many students also signed leases in town before the school announced its virtual plans for the semester.

UMass

“[The University] can’t mandate testing off campus or control gatherings where there are 40 or more people,” Jacobs said, referencing the party which caused the initial cluster. “That party wouldn’t happen in a dorm on campus. They should go back to the original plan for the fall.”

Without required testing or mask mandates, off-campus students can party and break coronavirus health guidelines with ease. In one week, UMass reported 75 new cases of coronavirus, including a cluster of 33 positive cases that started at an off-campus party.

Only one person, a student, has tested positive for the virus on campus. A total of 129 students have tested positive since Aug. 6.

Before the change in reopening plans, the University planned on inviting back as many as 7,000 students to campus.

“Invite everyone back with restrictions,” said Jacobs, who lives in New Jersey. “I think it’s worth the risk of living my life for the small chance of contracting the virus, instead of being holed up in my house for another six months or until we get a vaccine.”

University officials are aware of the petition, according to school spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski.

“We’re aware of a wide variety of opinions about reopening options, including this petition, as well as email, social media postings and input received in virtual forums in recent months,” Blaguszewski said in an email. “We take all of these into consideration.”

UMass

Many people who signed the petition said students should return to campus for in-person classes, citing online learning as a poor substitute.

“My kids need to be on campus for the college experience they thought they’d have when they chose UMass,” one parent wrote. “So many colleges brought the students on campus, and our kids are in their bedrooms.”

Nicholas Koutouvidis, a senior political science major who signed the petition, wrote about his struggles with WiFi and obtaining high grades while virtual learning.

“Not being allowed on campus at all has made it impossible for me to get into a routine,” Koutouvidis said in an email. “I am the kind of person who needs the structure of in-person instruction. I cannot justify paying full tuition for another semester of this.”

The push to bring students back comes as Massachusetts reports a steady increase in coronavirus cases throughout the state.

Colleges across the country have struggled to contain outbreaks, including the University of Rhode Island, which welcomed students and staff back for the fall semester and reported 154 cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 10. The University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, which reopened campus for in-person learning, have both reported over 2,500 cases since the pandemic began.

Tensions have risen between the Town of Amherst and the University in recent months, as town officials worried about the implication of 22,000 college students from around the country returning to the area.

In July, area residents started a petition named “Do NOT Bring College Students Back To School and To Our Community This Fall” which gained over 1,000 signatures. When UMass was planning to bring many students back, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote a critical letter to school officials expressing his concern.

Those worries still linger, as the University has yet to make a definitive decision about the spring semester.

“Our concerns are with the students infected with the disease as the long-term impacts to the coronavirus are unknown,” Bockelman said in an email. “I also am concerned about further spread of the disease to other students and the broader community.”

Last week, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee sent a letter to Subbaswamy urging punishment for students who broke coronavirus safety guidelines. After the initial cluster, Amherst Public Schools delayed the first day of in-person classes for all students.

University officials announced that 195 students were facing potential sanction, a “notable” amount of whom broke coronavirus safety guidelines.

If UMass decides to invite students back, the risk to the community depends on “what safeguards they have in place to ensure the students that are invited back stay safe and healthy, and the collaborative steps the University takes with the Town,” Bockelman said.

But the issue extends beyond just students’ health, according to Jacobs.

“It’s a complicated issue, small businesses in Amherst survive off of UMass students,” he said. “It’s more complicated than trying to save lives. There’s more to it than that.”

Matt Berg can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.