Over the past year, the Daily Collegian has covered the virus’ impact on the school community as the situation unfolded
March 13, 2021
Last March, it was impossible to predict the effect that a mysterious virus, which appeared across the globe months earlier, could have on the UMass community and the world. Now, exactly a year after students were informed that campus would be closed for the spring semester, it’s still difficult to comprehend the amount of change, struggle and loss that have characterized the last 12 months.
When UMass students were sent home, what seemed like a temporary inconvenience at the time soon became a way of life: remote learning, socially distanced gatherings and constant uncertainty about what the future would bring. The only certainty was that nothing would be normal.
In-person commencement was canceled and replaced with a virtual ceremony. Furloughs and layoffs coincided with changes to the campus’ operating plan. Students struggled to find the motivation to perform well in school under the abnormal conditions. The virus impacted nearly every aspect of life for students, professors, employees and local residents.
Coinciding with the issues created by the pandemic was the University’s battle to contain a deadly virus, balancing an effort to return to a sense of normalcy with the safety of the greater community. In a year with constant unforeseen obstacles, that balancing act proved difficult to maintain for the school on several occasions as tensions reached a boiling point.
Over the past year, the Daily Collegian has worked tirelessly to cover the virus’ impact on the school community. Here’s how the situation developed at UMass:
Within three days, all of the Five Colleges abruptly transitioned to remote learning. Students and professors were forced to adapt to a virtual classroom — a move that most were entirely unprepared for.
UMass struggled to keep up with COVID-19 testing at the time, as tests were a rare commodity throughout the state. A pandemic had not yet been declared, and screenings for the lethal virus were often routine checkups rather than swab tests. One doctor encouraged a student to come back to UHS if his symptoms worsened.
In the following days, the gravity of the situation began to set in as classes and programs were suspended for the entirety of the spring semester. Commencement, which was two months out, was postponed. No longer was the COVID-19 situation a brief inconvenience — such alterations to daily life proved the virus was here to stay.
With the sudden changes to campus life, the entire UMass community was impacted. Students abroad had to evacuate their respective countries at a moment’s notice. Those still on campus experienced a new way of life, characterized by an eerie atmosphere as they isolated. Businesses in town began to feel the effects as their primary source of income — students living on campus — mostly vanished overnight.
Then, a UMass employee tested positive for COVID-19 — the first case in the school community. Construction was brought to a halt. Campus stood still. The virus, which had largely been a far-off idea rather than an immediate threat, had arrived at the University.
UMass Medical students were called to the front lines to assist during the surge, jumping directly into the workforce from schooling. “I don’t think anything about this experience will be typical, as I think every person working health care right now will agree,” one student said. “I think any typicalness is out the window at this point.”
As the COVID-19 situation — now classified as a pandemic — raged on, the UMass community struggled to adjust to the “new normal.” It soon became apparent that students weren’t the only ones being affected by lockdown; residents in the area were impacted significantly.
A local food pantry saw a 50 percent increase in attendance throughout the month. Graduate students fought to delay the demolition of North Village and Lincoln Apartments complexes — the latter of which was later used as housing for students with COVID-19 — to ensure that those residents wouldn’t be left without a home during the pandemic.
The second case of COVID-19 came just over two weeks after the first case, with another employee testing positive. On the same day, UMass suspended plans for students to retrieve their belongings from dorms until further notice. The move coincided with Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order requiring all businesses that do not provide essential COVID-19 services to remain closed until May 4.
About 500 students were granted permission to stay on campus after others were sent home. Some described an anxiety surrounding what will happen when spring semester is over and hoped the situation would improve by summer. One student, who struggled to find solace during the first month of the pandemic, described the time as “a gigantic blur.”
“This whole incident really forced me to take a ‘day-by-day’ approach. I play each day by ear, which has turned this whole month into a gigantic blur as I can only do so much in quarantine.”
In late April, UMass Lowell was blasted for deciding to hold a virtual commencement ceremony. A week later, the Amherst campus would follow suit, as well as the vast majority of schools across the country.
The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on people of color was evident early on. Adequate healthcare was not always immediately available to those in vulnerable communities, and racism in the medical field led to death. The issue was underscored by the death of UMass alumna Rana Zoe Mungin, who died from the virus after being denied testing twice.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, schools began to unveil plans for fall semester — the first semester in history with most students learning remotely. The adjustments on campus were met with furloughs for employees and charges of unfair labor practices.
Over the summer, uncertainty about the fall semester loomed over the UMass community. Students lost internships and jobs and resident assistants and peer mentors fought for better working conditions. The pandemic continued to take its toll.
In late June, UMass released its reopening plan for the fall semester, introducing the community agreement that students were required to sign, pledging to bring 7,000 students back to campus and announcing increased testing for symptomatic students.
“We’re trying to create as much of a cocoon around the campus as possible,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told the Daily Collegian. “The ultimate goal is to try to create as much of a closed environment here as we can and try to maintain that health throughout the period of time that students will be on campus.”
However, 18 days before the start of the semester, UMass reversed its reopening plan due to the worsening conditions of the pandemic in Massachusetts. The move left students scrambling to work out housing and finances, and just over 1,000 students would now be permitted to stay on campus.
As the fall semester kicked off, the fears of many in the community came true. Just 34 resident assistants would be given work for the semester, nearly 850 school employees were put on furlough and students struggled to find the motivation to attend virtual classes.
Talks about following spring semester began in September. Spring break was canceled, and commencement and finals were delayed. There was no indication yet of how many students would be allowed on campus or whether there would be in-person, remote or hybrid learning.
Just a month into the semester, the idea that UMass could prevent COVID-19 cases among students who returned to the area was shattered. A wave of cases was sparked by a party, from which 28 students tested positive.
A spike in town followed, which coincided with anger and frustration from town residents who blamed UMass students for the uptick in cases. Discussions about the possibility of a full campus in the spring semester became common with more than 1,000 students and parents signing a petition supporting that measure — showcasing the contrasting views of some in the UMass community and town residents.
In late October, Subbaswamy announced the spring reopening plan, which originally included bringing campus to 60 percent housing capacity, with the majority of classes to be held virtually save for labs, studios and other classes which require face-to-face instruction.
The University was confident in its ability to safely invite a large number of students back, but Subbaswamy acknowledged the rising tensions between the school and town:
“While today’s announcement will undoubtedly be welcome news to many members of our campus community and disappointing to others, it is a step, albeit an incremental one, toward a time when our UMass family is fully together again.”
Two weeks after the spring semester announcement, UMass saw its second spike in COVID-19 cases, reporting 89 cases in a week period. Among large schools in the state, UMass ranked third in cases per 1,000 students.
There were issues immediately after the spring semester began on Feb. 1. Academic burnout among students persisted and student groups struggled to stay afloat financially. The sheer length of the pandemic continued to take a toll.
But what wasn’t foreseen was the massive spike in COVID-19 cases among students. In the first week of the semester, UMass reported hundreds of cases — including two consecutive days with new cases totaling over 100, shattering the previous single-day record of 35 new cases. More than 350 students faced sanctions for COVID-19 violations.
In the weekend leading up to the semester, the Daily Collegian reported on crowded back-to-back parties hosted by Theta Chi, a fraternity at the school. Several sources within the Greek community, a healthcare worker at the school with knowledge of specific COVID-19 cases and video evidence proved the parties occurred. Shortly after the report, Theta Chi was placed on interim suspension pending an investigation.
UMass raised its operational posture from “Elevated” to “High,” the highest measure possible, due to the spike in cases. As a result, students on and off campus were ordered to self-sequester for two weeks. Students were barred from working their jobs, athletics were postponed and those living on campus were prohibited from going outside, even for a walk.
Part I explored the living conditions in UMass’ dorms that fueled the virus’ march through campus. Students blatantly ignored health guidelines and hosted dorm parties with more than two dozen unmasked people.
“Think of an absolutely normal time in Southwest — whether it’s the lowrises or the towers —and it’s dumbfounding how normal things are,” a University of Massachusetts resident assistant said.
Part II analyzed the school’s failure to prepare for a spike in cases as the semester began. There were about 300 new cases in three days, overwhelming the school’s contact tracing system and causing UMass to seek the state’s assistance in contact tracing.
Part III was about issues with the quarantine living situation, in which students were able to continue their normal, social college lifestyle in dorms designated for students with COVID-19.
“It’s honestly a mess in here,” one student said. “There’s just no rules.”
Following the two week self-sequester period, the University implemented further restrictions in an attempt to prevent another outbreak. Students would be barred from online educational resources if they weren’t in compliance with testing standards, the school said, sparking backlash from professors.
During the self-sequester period, the Daily Collegian reported that Alpha Sigma Phi and Phi Sigma Kappa hosted parties, violating school policy. On the same day as the report, both fraternities were placed on interim suspension pending investigations.
UMass traditions continued a year after the pandemic began, with about 200 students facing discipline due to partying during the notorious Blarney Blowout celebration.