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WATCH: Why this university scaled back its reopening plan

As universities grapple with how to open safely for fall semester, some of their plans are meeting resistance from the communities where these academic institutions reside.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, which typically has 21,000 undergraduates, spent weeks planning for the fall, establishing six committees and absorbing feedback from more than 10,000 people. Their plan, which was released June 29, entailed inviting all undergraduates to come back and live on or off campus, although almost all classes were to be taught online. The only classes that would have met in person are those where face-to-face interaction is necessary, like music, art and laboratory instruction.

Students would also have to sign an agreement pledging to abide by a strict code that includes physical distancing, mask-wearing, COVID-1919 testing, and other screenings.

WATCH: College towns weigh benefits of students’ return with virus risks

Then late last week, just 18 days before classes were to begin, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy notified students and faculty that the school was “reversing our previously announced offer to provide on-campus housing for students whose coursework is entirely remote. Only students who are enrolled in essential face-to-face classes, including laboratory, studio and capstone courses… will be accommodated in campus residence halls and be granted access to campus facilities and dining this fall. All other students, whose courses do not require a physical presence on campus, should plan to engage in their studies remotely, from home.”

A statue of the minuteman, the mascot of University of Massachusetts Amherst, stands in front of the Old Chapel on the campus on April 30, 2020. Photo by Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“When we originally made the decision back at, towards the end of June, the situation with the pandemic was different, both in Massachusetts and in the country. It seemed like everything was going down and things were coming under control,” Subbaswamy said in an interview with the PBS NewsHours John Yang.

However, once UMass “started looking at all the logistics of how this would work,” Subbaswamy said, they realized it was going to be too risky and difficult if all the students who were expected to come showed up.

Before UMass reversed course, the town of Amherst criticized the university’s plan, saying it would “endanger the health and, perhaps, lives of those who live” in the same community. In a scathing letter to Subbaswamy, town manager Paul Bockelman wrote that the university’s plan will “fuel the conditions for a massive spread of Covid-19 that could overwhelm our local public health infrastructure, create a crisis for our local hospital, strain the capacity of our EMS first responders, and force out public safety officers into difficult, untenable, and possibly dangerous situations.”

The town is afraid that students who live on campus will infect students who live off campus, who will in turn infect people who live in Amherst.

One resident, Robin Jaffin, launched a petition that has more than 1,000 signatures imploring UMass to not bring students back.

Besides the town government and residents, the union that represents the UMass Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors — who live in the dorms and would have to enforce the mask wearing and social distancing rules — said the UMass plan “has one fatal flaw: It completely ignores the safety of students, workers, and community members.” And, they added, they “refuse to put our lives at risk for the University’s own revenue.”

In a conversation Monday, Subbaswamy talked with Yang about listening to the community’s concerns, enforcing safety measures among students and expectations for the start of the school year. Read their full conversation below.


JOHN YANG: Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us what led you to the decision that you announced last week that you were no longer inviting students to return to campus, whether or not their classes would be in person or not, and now only students with in-person instruction would be allowed back on campus?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: So when we originally made the decision back at, towards the end of June, the situation with the pandemic was different, both in Massachusetts and in the country. It seemed like everything was going down and things were coming under control. There was a phased opening. And so we thought that with all the steps we were taking, in terms of testing and contact tracing and all the precautions and, in fact, well, beyond the precautions recommended by the CDC and so forth, that we could safely invite students back and have them self-select. Basically, give the agency to the students. And in fact, that kind of worked in that, you know, out of the 14,000 beds, when we described what campus life would be like and what was expected of the students and said, “If you want to come, you’re welcome,” the population that said they would come back went down to about 6,000. So there was sort of a self-selection. And that’s exactly what we wanted.

But then as we started looking at all the logistics of how this would work out and even something simple like put all the testing we would do, the time it would take for sample collection — even if you assume it was one minute per sample, that’s a lot of samples if you have as many as 6,000 students on campus, as well as another 3,000 who would interact from the town. And so we decided that all risks considered and the trend nationally and regionally, it was quite likely that things could get out of control. And also, students then would have to go back [home,] which is really not preferable at all. And then we took into consideration the concerns expressed by our faculty and staff and the host community of Amherst that this may be too much of a risk. And so in the end, we decided that given the trends and given all the concerns, it was safer to reduce the number even farther.

JOHN YANG: How big a factor were the concerns of the host community of the town of Amherst?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: It’s certainly is a big factor because most of the townspeople are, in fact, in one way or another related to the university. So they’re really our own community. When we announced our plans back in June, we really didn’t have the testing plan completely worked out. Nothing was worked out. So over the month, we started working out the plan. So the first idea was to say, are the tests available or what would be the timeframe for getting the results, and all of those kinds of things. But then I’m just saying, I’m just giving it as an example, in terms of the complexity associated with– it’s easy to say we’ll test everyone twice a week or something like that. But then if you start working out the details of what that will entail, and as an observer of sample taking, that takes, in fact, a lot of time and a lot of people. And you need to set up the logistics.

Two people walk up a nearly empty N. Pleasant Street in Amherst on April 30, 2020, as businesses struggle to adapt to new restrictions and a fewer customers due to the COVID-19 epidemic and the University of Massachusetts Amherst suspending classes on the campus. Photo by Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

JOHN YANG: I want to go back to the decision in June when you wanted to bring as many students back as possible. You laid out to the ground rules, the situation, what it would be, then used to say there was a sort of a self-selection. Why was it important or was it important to give students an on-campus experience?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: Sure. I mean, I think, you know, everyone agrees that for students’ success and development, for the 18- to 22-year-olds I’m talking about, particularly an immersive residential experience with peer interactions, with opportunities for them to explore and to grow alongside of acquiring their academic skills is terribly important. That’s why, in fact, you know, so many families try so hard to send their 18-year-olds to immersive educational opportunities.

And so when we started originally making the plans, the idea was that we would select who would come, for example, first-year students and those who have face-to-face classes and so on. And the reaction we got from our students was, why are you picking and choosing who wants to– who should come? Because if you won’t allow us, we’ll probably end up renting places in the town and surrounding towns anyway, because we want to be there. We were tired of, you know, being in our parents’ homes for the last four or five months. And it’s time for us to be on our own again. And so I think that, you know, we therefore decided that we will give the agency to the students, expect that they understand what they would have to deal with and have them agree, agree to sign the community agreement that describes what is expected of them and self-select. And as I said, you know, that led to a lot of, I think, contemplation on the part of our own students and their families. And more than half chose not to come on their own. And so I think it worked. But accept that, you know, as we made the risk assessment this close to people coming back, we concluded that the risk had really risen to the point where we needed to make a further reduction.

JOHN YANG: And do you anticipate that there will be students, even though in your letter on Friday, you said that students who do come back and live off campus but don’t have face-to-face instruction will be denied access, will not have access to campus? Do you expect some students to come back anyway?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: Absolutely. As I said. I think that, you know, if you’re a 21-year-old and for four months you’ve been confined to your parental home or something of that sort, you’re absolutely eager to go back to live with the people with whom you’re going to be living in a house and apartment or what have you. And so I fully expect that regardless of what we do or did, a group of– a particular fraction of students would have come anyway. And they’re coming anyway, as indicated by, you know, what we know from the landlords and the occupancy of apartments and so on.

JOHN YANG: How are you looking to enforce the student agreement, to make sure that the students do actually wear masks in public, don’t congregate in large groups and that sort of thing?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: For one thing, it’s really through mostly through education and peer interactions. In other words, we’ve hired what we call public health ambassadors. Peer students, who many of them, in fact, from public health majors or nursing majors and so forth, generally health professions. And they will, in fact, you know, talk to students who are not observing public health best practices. And that’s sort of the first measure. First measure is really working through peers. And then if, in fact, there are persistent violations, then, you know, they’ll get visits from the next level, from the Dean of Students office. We’ll begin to have conversations and so on.

JOHN YANG: You talked about sort of the escalation from students talking to them, to the dean’s office talking to them. If someone is consistently not obeying, is removing them from campus a possibility?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: Certainly, because, we– our student code of conduct applies regardless of where you live. It’s not only applicable on campus. And so that’s sort of the last step really, is that the punitive measures would come in if all else fails. And we are confident that that would not be the case.

JOHN YANG: In any plan, as they say, as they say in the military, every plan of war survives until the first battle and then everything falls apart. And you do say that you anticipate things could go wrong. What’s your worst nightmare? What keeps you up at night? What are you– your greatest fear that could happen?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: I mean, I think the greatest fear for any campus today is that there is, in fact, an outbreak taking place that we haven’t detected, because isolation and quarantine really are our tools to contain and make sure that it doesn’t become a public health crisis in the region. And so, you know, the question is in terms of, yes, as you say, there will be violations of the best practices and things and then perhaps even an occasional party and so forth. The question is, are we detecting where those things happen and do the testing sufficiently quickly and have the response necessary to contain such that it doesn’t spread?

JOHN YANG: So we’re a couple of weeks away from the beginning of classes. How comfortable, how confident are you that things are going to go well?

KUMBLE SUBBASWAMY: I think with the reduced number of students, I feel a lot more confident than with the previous totals we had. You know, some models have we have a lot of really good epidemiologists on our faculty and they have done modeling and they always felt like a number below 3,000 living on campus was the most comfortable zone in terms of being able to contain. And so we’re now well below that. And then, of course, they always took into account the interaction from the surrounding community-based students coming on as well. So I think at the current number, because we can even increase the frequency of testing to twice a week now, we feel very confident that with the current reduced number of students, we will have a safe semester. We’ll work very hard at it. Our students are committed to making that happen.

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