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UMass Amherst classes will be mostly remote, but students can choose to live on campus

UMass Amherst will hold most classes remotely this fall. Most students will have the choice of coming to campus or participating from home. 
(Blake Nissen/ For The Boston Globe)
UMass Amherst will hold most classes remotely this fall. Most students will have the choice of coming to campus or participating from home. (Blake Nissen/ For The Boston Globe)Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the state’s flagship public campus, will hold most classes remotely this fall, but in an unusual move invited thousands of its students to live in the dormitories, as long as they abide by “strict” rules for coronavirus testing and social distancing.

The university considered public health issues, the safety of older faculty and staff and the neighboring towns, along with the desire of many students to return to campus, said Kumble Subbaswamy, UMass Amherst chancellor, on Monday.

“Planning for opening for the fall semester has been very difficult, very complicated,” Subbaswamy said. “Certainly the larger you are, the worse it is.”

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UMass Amherst is among the largest universities in Massachusetts with more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Of the 23,000 undergraduates, about 23 percent come from outside the state.

UMass Amherst’s fall plan to offer primarily remote classes even as it brings students back to live on campus differs significantly from its neighbors and the large Boston-area universities. For example, Boston University and Northeastern University have invited students back to campus, but are also planning to offer in-person classes, along with remote classes.

UMass Boston last week announced that all of its classes will be taught online to protect students and staff at the mostly urban commuter campus.

As for UMass Amherst, it’s unclear how many students will return to campus and the college town of Amherst in western Massachusetts in late August. Some cooped up students said that they were eager to live on campus or with friends, even if most learning would take place online. But others were upset that only one in seven students, mostly those whose classes require lab work or studio time, would be taught face-to-face.

Meanwhile, the town of Amherst braced for an economic lift from the return of students, but also a potential spike in the number of coronavirus cases as parties and other student gatherings are likely to resume.

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“We’ll have thousands of students coming from all over the country, if not the world, to a relatively small town — that’s a concern,” said Paul Bockelman, the Amherst town manager. “There’ll be a lot of pent up energy [from students]. It’s usually a positive thing, but in the COVID-19 world it’s a worrisome thing.”

The current absence of students and others from campus appears to be reflected in state coronavirus data. Amherst has by far the lowest per capita rate of infections in the state of any community with a population greater than 15,000 people. The town, with a population of more than 40,000, has recorded only 94 cases as of June 24, and tested only 1,823 people — at least in part because so many of the city’s residents are elsewhere.

But Matt Haskins, the owner of Matt’s Barber Shop, in downtown Amherst, said he is looking forward to a return of students who make up more than half of his business in the fall and thinks it can be done safely. Even in the summer, tourists and families visiting UMass Amherst, nearby Amherst College and Hampshire College, would buoy businesses. That’s not been the case this year.

“I say, bring them in and bring on business,” Haskins said.

Amherst College is planning for both in-person and remote classes. Hampshire College has announced that it will bring students to campus this fall and will offer an online option.

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Subbaswamy said UMass Amherst had to consider that some faculty and staff are older and may be more at risk for coronavirus and would be reluctant to teach face-to-face. The university expects that faculty will teach most of the classes online, likely from their homes.

Students, however, will not receive any tuition reduction for online classes, although those who stay home will not have to pay room and board costs, Subbaswamy said.

“The cost of education for us does not reduce with going online,” Subbaswamy said. “In fact, if anything, cost goes up."

The university has to invest in testing and safety precautions, such as barriers in cafeterias, and still pay faculty and staff the same salaries, he said.

Very few universities have offered price reductions to students who will be learning online this upcoming fall. However, Williams College on Monday announced it would cut tuition and fees for the next academic year by 15 percent and make the same reduction to the expected family contribution for students receiving financial aid.

Williams said it was cutting student costs because it has canceled fall athletics, its January “winter study” academic period, and many student activities. The college will offer hybrid courses with both in-person and distance instruction, with many classes offered entirely remotely.

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said most higher education institutions have too many set bills they must pay for faculty, staff and facilities, to cut tuition costs.

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“Colleges like Williams are about the only ones that can lower tuition and cover the loss as well,” Kelchen said. “Williams is one of the wealthiest colleges in the country.”

Still, the decision to keep tuition the same at UMass Amherst angered some students and families.

The college should have at least offered some more classes in-person, said Jack MacKinnon, a rising junior studying political science at the public university.

“I do believe opening the dorms is a money grab,” MacKinnon said. “I don’t see the point of allowing students back on campus when the majority would not be able to attend classes.”

UMass Amherst officials said they expect fewer students to live in the dorms, which will include single and double-occupancy rooms, this fall. Last year the university had 14,000 students living on campus, but some students found off-campus rentals in recent weeks, because UMass Amherst had initially considered only allowing single-occupancy dormitories and giving preference to first-year students, university officials said.

Dan McGinn, a Westborough parent, has a sophomore and senior attending UMass Amherst this fall and both will be living off-campus. Neither is excited that all their classes will be remote instruction, but they want to be back learning with their friends.

“When you choose to attend a residential college, it’s not the just classes, it’s a whole package of things,” McGinn said. “There’s no perfect in this. ... It’s going to be better than living at home and zooming from the family room.”

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Brian Morley, a rising junior from Pembroke, said he already has his apartment in Amherst for the fall that he plans to share with three roommates. Morley has one lab class that will be in-person.

“I’d like to try and make this semester feel as normal as possible,” Morley said. “I had a difficult time focusing on online learning when I was stuck in my own home, and I’m hoping that the new apartment will be different enough that I won’t feel quite so frustrated.”

UMass Amherst officials said students who do return will have to wear masks, agree to get tested when the university demands, and limit their travel away from the campus area. The university will also be canceling breaks, and teaching will occur on Labor Day and Veterans Day, so that the semester can conclude by Nov. 20, which will give students time to move out of the residence halls before the winter flu season, when the virus infections are expected to surge again.

(Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.)


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.