BOSTON — The flagship University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst plans to hold classes remotely this fall and start classes in August but will also allow students to move back in, provided they comply with what school officials describe as "exacting" health and safety standards.
The plan, set to be communicated to UMass Amherst community members in a Monday afternoon email, stipulates that only "essential" face-to-face labs, studios and other courses that involve hands-on work will be conducted in-person, and students who had previously reserved on-campus housing are invited to return if they choose to do so.
Campus Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said school officials heard "loud and clear" from students that they wanted to be in and around campus.
"We will basically give them a clear picture of what campus, college life is going to be like in the fall with all the public health restrictions," Subbaswamy said on a Zoom call with reporters. "It's quite different from the way anyone thinks of college experience. In all our communication, we will be very explicit about what the campus life looks like and what our expectations are and what we will hold all of our students responsible for, and with all of that knowledge if they still want to come to campus and live on campus housing, they're most welcome to."
Students who elect to live in on-campus housing or plan to spend time on campus will be required to sign an agreement committing to abide by safety protocols including limiting their daily social contacts, wearing face coverings outside their living space, limiting travel away from the campus area, not bringing guests into the residence halls, monitoring themselves for potential COVID-19 symptoms daily and "subjecting themselves to virus testing on demand," according to the school.
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, the vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, said the agreement aims to reinforce "that individual behavior is what will be the biggest determinant of how successful we can be."
The campus reopening plan calls for students to be tested before moving into housing or participating in any university program, and for any student who tests positive to self-isolate. UMass Amherst is establishing a new Public Health Promotion Center to coordinate COVID-19 response efforts, including asymptomatic testing, coordination of isolation and quarantine, contact tracing, flu vaccines, and outreach communication.
The school plans to offer most of its student support services remotely and to adapt its dining operations to facilitate social distancing, including tents for outdoor dining and online ordering at retail locations.
UMass Amherst's fall semester will run on a modified schedule, beginning on Aug. 24 with classes held on Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. It will end on Nov. 20, the Friday before Thanksgiving, and final exams will be held remotely after the holiday. Students are expected to move out when the semester ends.
The university is also advising students that it may close down its dorms and send students home if COVID-19 cases spike.
Earlier this month, state university campuses in Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield and Worcester announced that they plan to bring students back to the dorms and hold in-person classes in the fall, and the five undergraduate campuses of the UMass system are each developing their own plans for the semester.
UMass Boston is staying remote, while Lowell plans to return to on-campus instruction, with more details to be announced on July 1. UMass Dartmouth officials also plan to announce their decision this week.
The added costs of new safety precautions, uncertain state budget dynamics, and the significant share of an institution's revenue stream derived from room and board charges mean that schools must consider financial implications as well as public health ones in crafting their fall plans.
UMass Amherst is charging the same tuition for remote courses as for in-person ones in Fall 2020. The school's website pegs the estimated in-state tuition at $16,784 for the 2020-2021 academic year, and $36,763 for out-of-state students.
"The total cost of running the university is higher for us, and it's the same faculty who will be teaching, they receive the same salary, all the support staff will be the same exact support staff that'll be supporting them in a remote fashion, and they get the same salary and so on," Subbaswamy said. "So really the cost has not changed and if anything it's gone up, and so there is really no basis for charging lower tuition, and ultimately they all will be getting a UMass degree."
UMass Amherst had more than 24,000 undergraduates enrolled as of fall 2019, plus more than 7,000 graduate students and more than 1,400 full-time faculty members. Faculty members who aren't teaching face-to-face courses will be able to work from home in the fall, school officials said.
School officials said they expect about 14 percent of the student body will be enrolled in the labs, studios and performances that will involve face-to-face instruction. They did not put a number on how many students they expect to live in campus housing.
Students living on campus who test positive for COVID-19 may return home to isolate or be placed in isolation housing on campus where they could receive support services and a daily wellness call. Off-campus students are encouraged to develop an isolation or quarantine plan with their family and roommates - the university plans to provide support services in a student's off-campus location or home, but will not provide on-campus isolation or quarantine space.
In a press release, UMass Amherst said that the decision to invite first-year, transfer and returning undergraduates to live on campus if they wish "was informed in part by the overwhelming feedback from students that they want to pursue their studies on campus and indeed intended to seek out rental units in the area even if residence halls were not reopened."
In developing the reopening plan, Subbaswammy said UMass has been in contact with town officials in Amherst and some surrounding towns.
"We have an abiding interest in making sure that we maintain a healthy community and if there is a spread that we immediately contain and mitigate it, and similarly the town has the same interest," Subbaswamy said. "They also have an interest in having students come back because, obviously, they'd like to see some of their economic recovery begin to occur as well, so I think we have shared interest."