COVID-19 Cases At UMass Still Rising, Amherst Regional Public Schools To Decide Tuesday If “Phase 1” Reopening Will Happen on October 15
While a sharp spike in new cases has turned the Town of Amherst and neighboring Sunderland into red or “high risk” communities for COVID-19, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee called on officials at UMass-Amherst to discipline students more severely for off-campus parties.
However, in a joint statement on Friday, UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy and Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said they do not believe harsher penalties would be effective.
“Many have asked for more aggressive intervention by the Amherst Police Department regarding off campus group gatherings. While police continue to respond to noise complaints and issue citations … police are not utilized – and are not empowered – to enforce the Governor’s order on the size of gatherings,” they wrote.
If students “fear there will be onerous penalties” for being linked to a Covid-19 outbreak, “they will be far less likely to cooperate,” Subbaswamy and Bockelman stated. “In addition, leading public health experts advise that fear-based messaging and punishment erode the trust that is necessary to encourage good public health behavior.”
Amherst will continue to enforce its bylaws, while the UMass Dean of Students Office “will continue to hold students accountable for violations of the University’s Code of Student Conduct,” according to the statement.
Parties Are Much Smaller Than In Normal Years
Questions remain about how to stop the gatherings, which Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said in an interview on Thursday, October 8 are not the very large events of 100 students or more that sometimes take place during a normal year. When the department has responded to complaints about off-campus parties this fall, “the largest has been 15 people,” Livingstone said. Just eight people attended a single party a few weeks ago which officials believe was where the first UMass COVID-19 cluster took root.
As of Friday, October 9, the UMass COVID- 19 Dashboard showed a total of 136 positive cases since testing began there on August 6.
Subbaswamy and Bockelman stated that UMass and theTown are working together and are “committed to ensuring the health and safety of every member of our community.” UMass and the Town use testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine protocols, and there are mask requirements in town and on campus. Outreach efforts include “knock-and-talk” visits, a COVID-19 Ambassador program, and telephone and email hotlines. “Officials meet weekly to discuss behavioral trends, and students have been referred … to the University’s conduct process for repetitive or egregious behaviors,” they wrote.
Gatherings in Massachusetts were limited by Governor Charlie Baker to 10 people for several months, but that limit was raised to 25 people indoors in July, with higher numbers allowed outdoors. Masks are required both indoors and outdoors, in public places where social distancing is not possible.
Phase 1 Reopening of Public Schools Was Pushed to Oct. 15 from Oct. 1
Amherst was designated “high risk” for COVID-19 by the state Department of Public Health (DPH) on Wednesday, October 7, following the diagnosis of 95 new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks. Most were tied to off-campus housing occupied by UMass students.
There are doubts about whether the Amherst Regional Public Schools will be able to initiate Phase 1 of reopening buildings next Thursday, October 15. The 15th was the earliest possible date set by Schools Superintendent Michael Morris, after a plan to reopen on October 1 was scuttled by the surge in local cases. Phase 2 would start Nov. 2, and Phase 3 on Nov. 30, if the COVID-19 case rate and percentage of positive tests fall within accepted ranges.)
In a message to the school community on Friday, Morris said a final decision will be made on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 13, using data available at the New York Times Massachusetts Coronavirus Cases Map. As of Friday, that map showed 72 new cases in Hampshire County in the last week.
The School District and the Amherst-Pelham Education Association have agreed to health and safety metrics for any in-person school to be held. The agreed formula combines weekly COVID-19 case data for Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties, but weighs Hampshire more heavily. There must be fewer than 28 cases per 100,000 people per week for ARPS to hold in-person classes, but the seven-day rolling average was at 43.7 cases per 100,000 individuals on Friday.
In August, Morris had proposed a higher allowable level, of 70 cases per 100,000 people, which was rejected by the APEA. At Tuesday’s meeting, Amherst School Committee Vice Chair Peter Demling asked if Morris still believes the initial standard was correct.
“I don’t feel differently than I did Aug. 13,” Morris replied, adding that the more conservative number resulted from the “give and take of the negotiation process.”
“That’s what my comfort level is based on what I’ve heard from epidemiologists at multiple institutions,” Morris said. The school committees approved a one-year Memorandum of Understanding with the APEA on Tuesday, although its contents were not disclosed.
Fifty-eight People In Isolation in Amherst
A total of 40 Massachusetts cities and towns, including Holyoke and Springfield, appeared in the state Department of Public Health’s (DPH) high-risk category on Wednesday, based on rates of more than 8 COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 people. Amherst was listed at 16.8 daily cases, and Sunderland at 20.7, per 100,000 individuals.(This week’s statewide DPH report is here, and data from the Public Health Institute of Western Mass. is available here.)
Amherst’s website showed 58 “current active cases” as of October 9, and states that those individuals are in isolation, while Sunderland notes on its website that 11 residents have been diagnosed in the last two weeks. Amherst has had a total of 253 confirmed cases since the pandemic began.
The Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees voted on Tuesday to submit a letter to Subbaswamy, (on page 22 here) requesting that UMass “clearly communicate and consistently apply disciplinary consequences,” when students violate the Community Agreement.
“This is not meant to be anti-UMass, or anti-student,” said Demling, who offered the letter to the committees.”There is more that could be done, that the university is not doing.”
Regional Chair Allison McDonald agreed that UMass needs to discipline those who host gatherings that increase the risk of COVID-19. “We need to get our vulnerable students back into our buildings,” she said.
UMass has said that about 200 “conduct” cases are now pending, many of which result from COVID-19 concerns. The Code of Student Conduct sets out possible disciplinary measures which range from performing community service to imposition of sanctions, suspension or expulsion.
Community Agreement States that Students Will Not Host Parties
Each member of the UMass community “who returns to campus” had to agree to behaviors to protect themselves and residents of local towns.The UMass website states that agreement is required for “students living on campus or using UMass campus facilities” such as the libraries, recreation center, or dining halls. However, it is not immediately clear if students whose classes are entirely remote, and who do not come to campus for any reason would be also bound by it.
The agreement sets out testing and hygiene protocols, and states that students will “NOT host or attend gatherings and parties where social distancing is not possible.”
The disciplinary measures suggested by the School Committees include suspension or expulsion, depending on the circumstances and and the egregiousness of the actions.
The school committees’ letter cites policies from several universities across the state, including Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Boston University and Tufts University. Other universities “have set clear and strong expectations for disciplinary consequences,” the letter states, adding that students who attend or host an unsafe gathering either on or off campus “can expect” suspension.
Chief Livingstone said that the Amherst Board of Health is handling the enforcement of COVID-19 regulations, and his department is not issuing fines for violations.The town currently has 20 “Covid Ambassadors.” The Ambassadors needed to focus on North Amherst, Livingstone said, and have made visits to Meadow Street, Fisher Street, and Harris Street, along with Gray Street and South Whitney Street, among others.
However, the Amherst Police Department is able to issue citations for noise bylaw violations. Livingstone said the APD is issuing about 32 such citations per week, and about 50 to 60 percent result in fines of $300 per person involved. “We have no repeat offenders,” he said, adding that officers are now working extra shifts.
Livingstone said that the APD passes on the names of students cited to UMass officials each Monday. A meeting of local and UMass officials, along with State Representative Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and State Senator Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, takes place every Thursday, and discussions are ongoing about how to manage the outbreak.
This summer, UMass decided that its fall classes would be nearly all remote, and planned for 740 students to be on campus and 2,400 off-campus. “The right decision was made, not allowing the campus to open up,” Livingstone said.
Many Large Universities Have 1,000 Or More Covid-19 Cases
A New York Times website which is tracking COVID-19 at colleges and universities shows there were 178,000 cases spread among 1,400 institutions. It shows several state college systems with 1,000 cases or more, including Penn State, University of Wisconsin, Florida State University, Arizona State University, University of Iowa and University of Alabama.
University of Alabama issued sanctions against 630 students and three student organizations in early September for violating the university’s COVID-19 policies. Of those, 33 were suspended pending review of their cases.
Free COVID-19 testing is available to all Massachusetts residents via the Stop the Spread locations in Holyoke and Springfield. A full listing of testing locations can be found here: www.mass.gov/covid-19-testing.