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College towns weigh benefits of students’ return with virus risks

As the new academic year gets underway, college students, parents, administrators and faculty are deliberating over whether it will be safe to hold in-person classes and resume dorm life. And residents of the surrounding towns and cities worry about the risk that returning students could bring coronavirus back to campus with them. John Yang reports on one Massachusetts town's dilemma.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the new academic year gets under way at colleges and universities, students, parents, administrators, and faculty, and residents of college towns are all asking the same questions: Will it be safe? Should students return to campus?

    John Yang reports on those concerns, and then looks at the larger questions around affordability and cost that are getting new attention during the pandemic.

    It's part of our special series on Rethinking College.

  • John Yang:

    On campuses across the country, this year's annual student move-in has been a little different from the past, much smaller crowds.

  • Dominick Depaola:

    It's just odd not seeing anybody. You expected it to be hustle and bustle.

  • John Yang:

    And just about everybody wearing a mask.

  • Jihad Shockley:

    I know I'm going to do my part. I just hope other people do theirs.

  • John Yang:

    Millions of students, parents and college administrators have been wondering the same thing: Is it safe? In May, the 23-campus California State University system said there would be no in-person classes this fall. Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities made that move only last week.

  • Woman:

    In order to move in this year, you're going to want to make sure that you have a reservation beforehand.

  • John Yang:

    According to Davidson University's College Crisis Initiative, which tracks higher education's pandemic response, only about three-quarters of U.S. colleges have a plan.

    What schools decide affects more than just classrooms and campuses. It's also felt throughout college towns, like Amherst, Massachusetts, home to Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is known as UMass.

    In a normal fall, their combined enrollments would double the town's population. In June, UMass, by far the largest of the three schools, announced that all students could return to campus when the fall semester begins later this month, even if all their classes would be online.

  • Man:

    Lower you mask. Then you put it into your nostril.

  • John Yang:

    A system is in place for students to self-administer coronavirus tests twice a week. And they must pledge in writing to wear masks in public, not gather in large groups, and maintain social distancing.

  • Kumble Subbaswamy:

    We thought, with all the steps we are taking in terms of testing and contact tracing and all the precautions, in fact, well beyond the precautions recommended by the CDC and so forth, that we could safely invite the students back.

  • John Yang:

    Some year-round Amherst residents disagreed.

  • Robin Jaffin:

    When we started to see what the university's plans were in their first communications, it was alarming.

  • John Yang:

    Robin Jaffin asked people to sign a petition that said returning students will increase the risk to our communities. A big concern? The behavior of students living off-campus.

  • Robin Jaffin:

    How do you actually implement the set of requirements for them that you have set for the same student body that's on campus?

  • Man:

    This weekend, there will be a lot of parties.

  • Paul Bockelman:

    Yes.

  • Man:

    There's still a lot of students that live in town.

  • John Yang:

    Town officials worried that an influx of students could drive up the area's currently low infection rate.

  • Paul Bockelman:

    The real fear is the — if our local hospital gets overwhelmed. And we have worked hard to manage that. We fear that our public safety, emergency medical services and police will get overwhelmed.

  • James Cordero:

    Colleges are very comparable to landlocked cruise ships.

  • John Yang:

    Students who work in dormitories as residential assistants and peer mentors also voiced their opposition.

    Rising senior James Cordero is a leader of their labor union.

  • James Cordero:

    And the fact is, when you put that many people together in such confined spaces, social distancing is such the opposite of what those environments are built for.

  • John Yang:

    On the other hand, local business leaders fear the economic impact of a fall without students.

    Gabrielle Gould is executive director of Amherst's Downtown Business Improvement District.

  • Gabrielle Gould:

    If we lose our student population, we will lose more businesses than we already are presented with losing due to the COVID pandemic.

  • John Yang:

    Amherst Books is the town's last remaining brick-and-mortar bookstore. Co-owner Nat Herold says he felt caught between a rock and a hard place.

  • Nat Herold:

    I could probably speak for most of the merchants in town that we're looking forward to having business come back to town, but we're also terrified that people are going to bring the virus.

    I mean, I need the business, but I also would just as soon the students not come back.

  • John Yang:

    As the academic year approached, and with the pandemic worsening nationwide, UMass officials realized their plan presented daunting logistical challenges, like regularly testing all students.

  • Kumble Subbaswamy:

    It's easy to say we will test everyone twice a week or something like that. But then, if you start working out the details of what that will entail, in fact, as an observed sample-taking, that takes, in fact, a lot of time and a lot of people.

  • John Yang:

    He wrote the UMass community late last week, abruptly reversing course. Only students who are enrolled in essential face-to-face classes will be accommodated in campus residence halls.

    Instead of 15,000 students on campus, officials now expect fewer than 1,200 in UMass dorms and another 3,000 living in town. Most are in classes like science labs, which have been modified for social distancing.

    The Amherst residents' concerns had been heard.

  • Kumble Subbaswamy:

    We were both drifting in that direction of saying we don't want as many students. And so to get to that decision to reduce the number, a lot of deliberation had to go into it. So, that's really a lot of the steps we were learning as we were going along.

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