Letter: UMass Needs Rigorous Policy For Monitoring Off-Campus Students

Photo: umass.edu

UMass has done many things right in its attempts to reduce the threat of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community. But I believe a significant weakness exists in UMass’s current approach to off-campus students that threatens the integrity of the overall effort to contain COVID-19 as well as the health and safety of those living in the Pioneer Valley.  

Thousands of UMass students are arriving in Amherst and surrounding towns who will live off-campus but attend all-online courses. Because they are largely unsupervised and living in a wide range of communal housing situations, these students are at high risk for exposure to coronavirus and for transmitting it to others. The risk is heightened by behaviors observed by myself and many others such as large-group gatherings, lack of social/physical distancing, and failure to wear masks.  

The stated UMass policy toward these students is:

“Students who live off campus in the Amherst area and are not coming to campus for classes are required to be tested upon arrival or shortly thereafter, and then periodically throughout the semester if local community transmission is identified.”

The weakness of this policy lies in the word “periodically,” which is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and in the caveat that testing will only be done if local transmission is identified. The policy should be much stronger. By the time local transmission is identified, the horse will be long out of the barn.

UMass should hold off-campus students to the same high standard of testing as on-campus students and back up the testing requirement with clear sanctions for failure to adhere, e.g., cancelling access to online classes.  Presumably, UMass has contact information for all its registered students, so communicating an updated policy on testing is possible even if the exact location of off-campus students is unknown. Adding off-campus students to the current testing regimen will add expense and require additional staff and effort on the university’s part, which will be challenging given the financial realities it faces. But the current policy amounts to a ticking time bomb in our communities and failure to stiffen the policy amounts to reckless disregard. 

Town Manager Paul Bockleman, in his letter to UMass of July 10, included as one of his requests, that UMass treat on-campus and off-campus students alike–including testing. Why UMass chose to ignore this aspect of the Manager’s request is unknown, but it is time for the university to again change course and embrace an inclusive approach to testing.

I urge Indy readers to talk to their representatives and/or UMass leaders about this issue. UMass should act now to fill this significant gap in its otherwise responsible approach to COVID-19 mitigation.

Stephen Braun is a member of the Editorial Board of the Amherst Indy.

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