BOSTON (SHNS) – More than 74,000 University of Massachusetts students will be required to take all of their classes online beginning as soon as Thursday as the state’s largest public university system transitions fully to remote learning in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The University of Massachusetts on Wednesday become the latest higher education institution in the state to make the decision to cancel on-campus classes following Gov. Charlie Baker’s declaration of a state of emergency.
Other private institutions moving to online learning to help control the spread of the virus include Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Amherst, Smith, Emerson and Boston University. The transition on UMass’s five campuses, officials hope, will only be temporary as leadership plans to reassess the public health situation by the end of the month.
“It’s a complex, fast evolving challenge and we felt this morning that we had to be proactive and that we had an obligation to do our part to try to mitigate the spread of the virus in Massachusetts,” UMass President Marty Meehan said in an interview.
Meehan sent a memo to the Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning outlining the decision he had made in consultation with board Chairman Robert Manning. Meehan said he also spoke with Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, and all agreed it was the right thing to do.
Online learning on all campuses will last through April 3, according to the university, and Meehan plans to reassess the public health situation by April 1 to decide whether that period should be extended.
“We are committed to ensuring to the best of our ability the progression of our students toward their degrees,” Meehan said.
UMass Amherst and UMass Boston will begin remote learning on March 23 after spring break, while students on the Lowell campus will begin next Wednesday after they return from their break.
UMass Darmouth, which is on spring break this week, plans to extend the vacation another week and begin remote learning on March 23, and UMass Medical students will begin online classes on Thursday.
Baker on Tuesday said he was aware that UMass and other state universities were discussing the possibility of canceling in-person classes, but did not think a decision had been made.
“That’s obviously very disruptive,” Baker said.
Meehan said that the each campus will do its best to minimize disruption to students’ degree progress, and make accommodations for students, including international students, who would have nowhere to go if they were forced to leave campus.
“The campuses are not being closed. International students who can’t leave will stay in the residence halls and food service will be open to them. Each chancellor will be managing their campus according to their individual needs,” Meehan said.
While most students are being asked to stay away from campus and dorms and to take whatever books and computers they will need to conduct their coursework remotely, Meehan said students are not being asked to move out of campus housing, as they have been at many other colleges. He also said it was too soon be begin discussing possible rebates for housing and meal plans if students are not permitted to return.
“In a perfect world, on April 1 we would be telling everyone to come back,” Meehan said.
In a separate email to his campus, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said all students should remain away from campus “until further notice,” but said exceptions will be made for students in “special circumstances.” Students enrolled in certain laboratory, studio or capstone course may also be told separately to continue reporting to class on campus.
While the first known case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts was a UMass Boston student who had traveled to China, Meehan and Subbaswamy said there have been no cases reported in Amherst, or on any of the other campuses.
Public health officials said Tuesday that the Boston student was still in quarantine, but recovering well. That student, whose case was announced Feb. 1, has been in quarantine for longer than many other cases.
The university also said it had adopted Gov. Baker’s recommendations for executive branch state employees and restricting work-related foreign and domestic travel, and discouraging employees from personal international travel.
Conferences, seminars and other large gatherings should also be canceled or held virtually, Meehan advised in his letter to trustees, and workers at high-risk should explore opportunities to work from home.
While Gov. Baker suggested on Tuesday that large public gatherings are “probably not a great idea,” a quarterfinal playoff hockey match up this weekend between UMass Amherst and Northeastern is still scheduled to take place with fans in attendance.
Meehan said that many Division III athletic events on the Boston and Dartmouth campuses have been canceled, but the university continues to consult with Hockey East about future Division I contests. UMass and Northeastern plan to drop the puck at the Mullins Center in Amherst on Friday and Saturday, with a third game scheduled for Sunday if necessary.
“They will go along with whatever Hockey East decides to do, although I’m sure Northeastern would love us to forfeit the game,” Meehan said.