On Sunday, February 7th, 2021, just under two weeks after move-in for the Spring semester, UMass Amherst declared that the operational posture of the campus had been raised from “Elevated Risk” to “High Risk.” This shift is due to the continuing surge in COVID-19 cases, both on and off-campus. As a result, UMass ordered students to “sequester in place” for the next two weeks, shifting all learning to remote learning and extending the closure of indoor dining. At one point, the university prohibited leaving residential areas for outdoor exercise, a policy that has now been removed. Furthermore, students are expected to follow the self-sequester directive and off-campus employers are asking students to stay home, receiving a stipend of up to $300 from UMass. Any student caught violating the school’s guidelines is subject to disciplinary action, according to the statement released by the chancellor:
“Failure to comply with these directives is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and will result in disciplinary action, which may include removal from residence halls and/or suspension. ”
But what does the school mean by “disciplinary action?” Statements released indicate a range, which in reality can be anything from a slap on the wrist to suspension. It is this kind of ambiguity when it comes to consequences that puts the blame on the administration, rather than the students. It is impossible to expect college-aged students to follow social distancing guidelines without the fear of severe consequences. It’s this level of unpreparedness that allowed for the parties at Theta Chi that took place the weekend of February 6th. Following videos of two back-to-back crowded parties at the fraternity house, the university faced severe backlash from the student body over the lack of response to the matter. In less than a week, over 9,000 signatures had been gathered in a petition to disband the fraternity. Following this backlash, the university placed the fraternity on interim suspension, and the chapter has been ordered to cease all chapter-related functions. However, this is the first passive step of many that needs to be taken.
This past fall semester the university had succeeded in limiting the number of students on-campus and keeping UMass and the surrounding communities safe. Following the sudden move-out and change to remote instruction in the spring of 2020, the university had nothing but time to create a plan that allows students to return to campus while safely following the community guidelines. In fact, we had seen countless institutions around the country successfully doing so with a much larger number of returning students. And yet, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has simply dropped the ball when it comes to this spring. It is irresponsible to expect students to safely return to campus of their own volition. Without a clear definition of disciplinary action, the university showed itself to be apathetic to students’ actions, exerting action upon students who don’t deserve it and turning a blind eye to those they are letting fly under the radar.
Simply put, UMass needs to take action and respect the safety of their students, and that starts with taking responsibility for their actions and enforcing stricter and clearer guidelines. It is not too late, and we need to start now.