By Katherine Sabido
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON – Colleges and universities are large contributors to the communities they reside in and neighbor, but in order to remain as meaningful contributors, municipalities ask that they return to campus in a safe manner. Officials say that’s been the case for the most part.
“I think the colleges and universities have been very responsible in fulfilling their role and making sure the students are safe and that they have the appropriate guidelines in place to follow, which is very important for the local community,” said Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury. “I think it’s a positive that the students are back, for the local economy.”
Communities raised the same anxieties this year as they did for the 2020-2021 academic year, in regard to heavily populated college campuses putting surrounding communities at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. But a number of municipalities and their representatives agree that institutions, for the most part, have done a good job at keeping their on-campus and off-campus communities safe, allowing for the revival of local economies and culture.
Most colleges returned to full capacity for the Fall 2021 semester, with around 39% of Massachusetts’ colleges and universities (67 of 173) requiring vaccination for students and more institutions joining the ranks in the coming months.
But despite most colleges having over 90% compliance with vaccination requirements, with exceptions for medical and religious reasons, campuses still experienced outbreaks due to varied COVID-19 safety protocols.
University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the largest public university in the state, had an outbreak of the Delta COVID-19 variant at the beginning of the current academic year. The university recorded 380 positive cases for the week of Sept. 8 – 14.
UMass Amherst has a 96% vaccination compliance rate among its total campus population and there is currently an indoor mask mandate in place. Students and faculty are not required to test unless they are exempt from the vaccination requirement.
Amherst Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said that the institution was very quick to control the outbreak but acknowledged that the institution’s misstep was probably their lack of a testing requirement.
“They had about 10 times the outbreaks among those students,” said Griesemer. “I mention that only because it really demonstrates the efficacy of the vaccinations and it demonstrates UMass Amherst really focusing on where the problem was. I think that not only have they been very responsive to the town of Amherst, and reached out with services to the town of Amherst, but they have been extremely hard working at educating their students and bringing outbreaks under control.”
“I think that as with everything, you hear it when it’s a concern, and then you don’t hear it when it’s not a concern,” said Griesemer. “I have not gotten an email about concern over student outbreaks now for probably four weeks.”
Boston College, Chestnut Hill
Boston College recorded 62 positive cases following the Labor Day weekend in September, which is the highest number of positive cases they have had in a single week since the semester began. This number is close to the 70 cases recorded following Labor Day weekend last year; that spike was labeled an outbreak that the Baker administration stepped in to control because BC stretches across three different communities.
The BC administration’s reason for not implementing a mask mandate this year, as it did for the 2020-2021 academic year, is that the vaccination compliance rate is at 99.3%, according to a statement made by BC spokesman Jack Dunn to The Boston Globe. Similar to UMass Amherst, BC only requires weekly testing for designated “high-contact” groups.
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller could not be reached for comment, but she has previously been very vocal about her criticism of BC’s handling of COVID-19. She even called on state officials to “strengthen” their oversight of BC’s COVID-19 safety protocols.
Other colleges have more strict, proactive measures in place:
Boston University, Boston
Boston University has a 98.4% vaccination compliance rate among its total campus population, requires weekly testing for all community members, and has a mask mandate in place for all indoor spaces. BU also requires the daily completion of COVID-19 symptom surveys.
BU’s Clinical Testing Lab recorded around 40 positive cases during the dormitory move-in period at the end of August, and then another 40 cases at the beginning of October. There was no major pushback from surrounding communities; rates have been relatively low outside of those two spikes.
Boston University has several housing and academic buildings within Brookline’s town borders, and at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, Rep. Tommy Vitolo, D-Brookline, received a petition from residents concerned that the university’s reopening would endanger them.
“The petition expressed concern that students at BU, when they came back in September, would be coming from wherever it is that they lived all over the world and that it could create a massive outbreak,” said Vitolo. “I responded to them and expressed my optimism that BU’s protocols would be effective and I’m grateful that, that’s exactly what happened.”
Vitolo said that prior to BU reopening this year, at a much higher capacity, there was not as much opposition from residents.
“Boston University did an outstanding job,” said. Vitolo. “I can’t tell you that everything they did was perfect … but people at BU correctly understood that vaccination is not a guarantee that you can’t get COVID. There are other strong protocols on campus … and I didn’t get as big of a pushback [from residents as I did last year].”
Harvard University, Cambridge
Harvard has a 96.5% vaccination compliance rate among its total campus population. In addition to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, the university has also made flu vaccinations mandatory, as did the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The university continues to test on a frequent basis for all on-campus persons and has an indoor mask mandate.
Harvard Business School, located in Boston, moved classes online for all first-year, and some second-year, MBA students for a week in September after a spike in COVID-19 cases. The university recorded 74 positive cases from Sept. 20 – 27, with 60 of those 74 cases being graduate students.
A letter written to all MBA students by the Harvard Business School administration noted that only 9% of the student population at the university is made up of MBA students, yet they account for more than two-thirds of the total student cases in September.
The outbreak at Harvard shows that despite strict COVID-19 protocols and high vaccination rates, people can still contract the virus.
The Cambridge City Council and City Manager could not be reached for comment.
Boston is known as the academic capital of America, and the state as a whole is home to nearly 200 higher education institutions. Colleges and their populations are a large part of the state’s economy and culture.
When the Massachusetts Higher Education Working Group, composed of administrators from 14 colleges and universities in the commonwealth, submitted a proposal for the reopening of public and private institutions to the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board, they highlighted the fact that the research they conduct is “critical” to the state’s economy and fight against COVID-19.
Boston’s colleges and universities employed over 36,000 people in payroll jobs in 2020 and 67.4% of enrolled college or university students lived in off-campus housing in the Greater Boston area, according to a 2020 report by the Boston Planning and Development Agency
In the 2018 fiscal year, the University of Massachusetts system generated $7.5 billion in economic activity, through multiple forms of spending, having a positive economic impact on the commonwealth.
In Amherst, the three largest employers are the higher education institutions within town borders – UMass Amherst, Amherst College and Hampshire College. Town Council President Griesemer said that when the pandemic forced the institutions to shut down, the town’s economy took a large blow.
“We suffered a huge financial loss in Amherst during COVID. Our enterprise funds for sewage and water just went way down; transportation went way down,” said Griesemer. “Our biggest users are the higher ed institutions. They’re our biggest employers, they are a huge representation of the people who live in the town of Amherst, not just the students, but the faculty and the staff.”
As Griesemer stated, college towns do not only need institutions for employment, but they also need their populations for consumption.
“The faculty and staff don’t all live in Amherst, but a good number of them do, and the rental market for Amherst is very heavily skewed toward students,” said Griesemer. “And then on top of that, if they’re not using the meal plan on campus, they’re buying from our supermarkets, and they’re going to our restaurants, and they’re doing takeout or now, if they’re comfortable, they’re sitting in a restaurant and having a meal.”
The Baker administration deemed the state as fully reopened as of May 29, earlier this year, but there are still lingering anxieties in communities about the safety of returning to fully in-person events and operations.
As such large neighbors, it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to ensure that they are participating in good public health practices.
“I think the universities really are working hard to make sure that it’s safe to be on campus,” said Vitolo. “Some are doing a better job than others, but I know they take it seriously [and] I think most college kids have really stepped up and done their part in the fight against COVID-19.”
Vitolo says that seeing the college populations participate in good public health practices is vital in encouraging the rest of the commonwealth to do so as well.
“We want to be in places where other people are… where there’s diversity,” said Vitolo. “And students add to that diversity… it’s no question in my mind [that] it’s good for Brookline [for] the universities to have students back on campus, so long as they continue to demand good public health around COVID. So far, they have.”