Local landlords met with town and police officials on Wednesday (7/29) to address concerns about the imminent return of college students to the area. The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was attended by about 40 people. Students living off-campus are expected to begin moving in the beginning August 1. On-campus move-in begins on August 15. Classes begin on August 24 with most classes slated to be held on-line.
Much of the discussion centered on concerns about student parties and the risk they pose for spreading COVID-19, and on plans to promote safe student conduct in response to the pandemic.
Scott Livingstone, Chief of the Amherst Police Department (APD), pointed out that there are still many unanswered questions associated with the return of students, that the situation is dynamic, and that his department and town officials are seeking an active collaboration with UMass and property managers to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Livingstone reported that the APD’s outreach and education program for dealing with off-campus student parties involves working with a variety of UMass entities and tries to enlist the cooperation of students who live off-campus. He noted that prior to COVID-19, this approach has been quite successful. The approach includes party registration through UMass’ Party Smart Program and direct engagement with problematic “party houses.” Registered parties receive guidance on holding safe parties (see below) and a courtesy call from the police before they are dispatched to address complaints. This gives hosts an opportunity to address the complaints without police intervention and without incurring a ticket or fines. . Livingstone said that in response to the challenges of COVID-19, the APD is going to drift back toward a law enforcement model with the intent of conveying the seriousness of the current pandemic situation. APD will emphasize enforcement of noise complaints that may entail tickets, fines, or arrests as well as educational follow-up meetings. He said, “We want the students to understand that there will be consequences for large gatherings. We’ll also be sharing information widely [e.g. with the Amherst Department of Health and UMass]. We all need to be on the same page.”
All returning students are required to sign the UMass Agreement, which sets out behavioral expectations and is aimed at protecting the health and well-being of UMass students and the broader community.
Sally Linowski, Associate Dean of Students for Off Campus Student Life, and Community Engagement, reported on how her office will educate students about pandemic risks and will manage off-campus party problems more assertively than in the past. She said that her office is expecting about a 50 percent reduction of students in residence on campus but little change in the number of students who live off-campus. Her office is preparing welcome kits for all off-campus students that will include masks, sanitizer, a COVID-19 information kit, and information on party regulations. Every registered party will require a Zoom meeting between the organizers and Linowski’s office that will include a discussion of COVID-19 prevention, a question-and-answer session, and a reminder about the commitments entailed in the UMass Agreement. Party registrants will be required to provide a list of everyone who attends the party and their local addresses to aid in contact tracing.
Councilor Darcy Dumont (District 5) asked about COVID-19 testing for off-campus students. Tony Marulis, Executive Director of External Relations and University Events at UMass responded that it is the intent of UMass that all students be tested before they come to Amherst, and that the University is working on how to monitor and implement that. He noted that triggers for requiring additional testing would include anyone who has a meal plan, participates in regular on-campus activity, or has coronavirus symptoms. But the details of how this would operate, including where students will go for testing, who will pay for testing, how long a turnaround will be expected for test results, and what UMass’s daily capacity for providing tests are not yet established.
Jon Thompson, Amherst Building Inspector, reported that he has been hearing from Amherst residents who are becoming hyper-vigilant due to recent student parties in Amherst and are voicing their concerns about the behavior of returning students. He said that his department has been “doing a lot of education with students who have been moving in.”
Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) said that she has been hearing from many of her constituents, who are worried about students’ risky behavior during the pandemic.
Thompson pointed out that UMass is not responsible for supervising students off campus and that this is the responsibility of landlords and should be part of the lease agreement.
Bill Laramee, the Community Liaison Officer for the APD, said he is expecting to receive more calls and complaints about parties, and emphasized that the Town and the landlords need to collaborate with each other. He shared a lease from East Bridgewater that includes a COVID clause. He also reported that the police department is already keeping an eye on places that are historically party-dense and said that APD will be more proactive with them than under normal circumstances.
Ed Smith, the Health and Building Inspector, warned that overpopulation in housing units and the resulting crowding is especially dangerous during the pandemic, and encouraged landlords to help prevent this by enforcing lease and Town occupancy restrictions.
David Waskiewicz, Senior Building Inspector, asked if there will be a registry for tracking students living off-campus who contract COVID-19 or might be exhibiting symptoms. Thompson responded that all confirmed COVID-19 cases will be reported to Amherst’s Public Health Department and contact tracing will be conducted. It was not clear, however, how responsibilities will be divided between the Amherst Public Health Department and UMass’s planned contact tracing operation. All students who access campus will be expected to do a “daily symptom check” (there will be an app for that, but the link was not available as of this writing).
There will inevitably be students isolating/quarantining off campus. Landlords can help the public health effort by sharing their own knowledge but students will be expected to manage their own isolation/quarantine, he said. If students living off-campus cannot safely isolate and quarantine (due to a crowded living situation or the inability to provide the isolating student with their own bathroom) then the University will provide accommodations for quarantine.