One UMass System, Different Reopening Plans

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One UMass System, Different Reopening Plans

On March 11, UMass President Marty Meehan made the decision to shift all five UMass campuses to online instruction for the remainder of the semester. This decision was echoed by many other universities across Massachusetts and the nation in response to the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the four UMass campuses that serve undergraduates continue finalizing their plans for the fall and beyond, it seems that the system is permitting each school’s local landscape to factor into campus reopening plans. This is an encouraging sign. Given that UMass-Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell are all unique campuses, they need not chart the same path.

Table 1 demonstrates that the areas surrounding UMass undergraduate campuses differ tremendously in their reliance on higher education for jobs and on the severity of COVID-19. 

Table 1: Municipalities with UMass undergraduate campuses, with percentage of jobs at colleges, universities, and professional schools, the number of COVID-19 cases, and unemployment rate

Municipality

Percent of total municipal jobs at colleges, universities, and professional schools

COVID-19 cases (as of 6/24)

Estimated unemployment as of 3/14

Estimated unemployment as of 6/13

Amherst

28.22%

94

7.00%

22.30%

Boston

2.49%

13,897

3.10%

14.50%

Dartmouth

0.02%

386

3.60%

14.30%

Lowell

0.30%

2,854

3.80%

16.10%

Sources: Your-economy Time Series 2018 data: NAICS 6113 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Applied Geographic Solutions Inc.

 

Of the municipalities with UMass campuses, Amherst has the fewest COVID-19 cases but the highest unemployment rate, according to Pioneer Institute’s COVID-19 Unemployment Tracker. Further, Amherst has the highest percentage of jobs that are associated with the colleges, universities, and professional school industry out of the four cities. Already, many higher education workers (professors and custodians alike) have been furloughed or laid off. These furloughs include UMass-Amherst staff.  

UMass-Amherst’s plan for the fall, released on June 29, seeks to accommodate “all undergraduate students who have reserved on-campus housing for the upcoming semester, and for whom there is space available” in on-campus housing facilities. While this wording might seem unclear, in practice, it appears that UMass-Amherst is striving to preserve as much of the traditional, residential college experience as possible, while acknowledging that students must abide by “strict public health behavioral restrictions,” such as daily symptom logging and a ban on having guests in the residence halls. Even though the vast majority of classes will be online, having students in residence again could constitute a first step in helping struggling college-towns, like Amherst, recover from the negative economic impacts of COVID-19.       

In addition to the economic repercussions of a given plan, another factor that must be considered in planning for a return to campus is the composition of the student body at school (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Breakdown of on-campus vs. off-campus undergraduate students at each UMass campus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: 2019-2020 Common Data Set for UMass Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell 

 

As Figure 1 shows, far more undergraduates at UMass-Boston live off campus or commute to class than undergraduates at other UMass campuses. One might think that having fewer on-campus residents might make in person learning more feasible, since schools will not have to worry as much about the density associated with residence halls. Managing campus density seems to be one of the hurdles UMass-Amherst had to confront when planning, given that 63 percent of students lived in college-owned, -operated, or -affiliate housing in the 2019-2020 school year (Figure 1). Indeed, the school still seems to be grappling with the density issue as previous guidance proposed capping dorms at 50 percent capacity, but such a concrete target was not mentioned in the final plan.

Unlike UMass-Amherst, UMass-Boston has decided against bringing students back to campus – with limited exceptions for on-campus activities that are challenging to complete remotely such as scientific research and nursing simulations. This decision might not have been motivated by density concerns, but it certainly exemplifies how to consider a campus’ student body when planning. In her June 22 letter to the UMass-Boston community, Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman cites UMass-Boston’s “physical location and transportation patterns, as well as its relationship to the surrounding, large urban area” as factors that make adhering to “social distancing and health/safety rules” more difficult than in “a fully residential campus in a more removed setting.” Newman appears to have taken her campus’ demographics into consideration when formulating her plan. UMass campuses that have not finalized their plans should take a similar approach of devising unique plans addressing the challenges faced by the nature of the student body and the economy of the surrounding area.

It is near certain that there will be challenges no matter what plan a campus settles on. For schools reopening for in-person learning in the fall, like UMass-Amherst, they must procure enough tests in order to test students and staff when they arrive on campus and periodically throughout the semester, determine where to quarantine students when and if they become sick, and consider the liability risk of infections originating in the campus community. Encouragingly, the Amherst plan seems to address these issues. For schools pursuing a primarily virtual semester, they must confront their own set of unique obstacles such as appealing (or not appealing) to students who believe that tuition should be cheaper when classes are online.

Devising plans is only a first step of many in confronting the challenges of reopening higher education for the fall semester and beyond. But, seeing that the plans released appear to consider the public health outlook of the nearby area, the economic state of the nearby community, and the demographics of the student body at each campus, one should be encouraged by the preliminary steps different UMass campuses have taken.