The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts will shift to remote learning starting Monday due to a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past several weeks. WAMC spoke today with President Dr. Jamie Birge about why the college of around 1,100 students is making the move now, and what it says about returning to in-person education during the pandemic.
BIRGE: As we have tested students through our testing and tracing protocol, what we discovered was that since March 22nd, we've had 28 students test positive. Most of those students were in our townhouse complex, and so we essentially put a lockdown on the townhouses mandating everybody living there would have to study remotely. What we discovered was that there were more students who had had close contact with those positive test results, and so they were placed in quarantine. Our concern is that as we started looking at the possibility of those students in quarantine converting to positives with subsequent tests that that might have, that might have been a more significant problem than we have, had right now and so we decided given that possibility, it was too risky for us not to take some action to have the campus go to remote learning for the rest of the semester.
WAMC: What does this say about the experiment of returning to in-person education during the pandemic?
Well, I think it says that it worked. Let's remember that for 13 months we have hunted and detected and controlled the virus. We've been doing it since last March. We've succeeded at it. What it means is that, I think, you know, here we are four weeks away from the end of the semester and we've had this outbreak. It's a function of some social gatherings that happened in, on and off campus. It didn't happen as a result of classroom, lab, or studio activities. This was a matter of young people wanting to get together and gather. But that was a moment in time decision that they made that, of course, now is ill informed as they know. But for 13 months they were absolutely remarkable, they were great students, they complied with the policies and they did a really great job of helping us control for that virus. It just so happens that a couple of people had some parties, and we suspect that this virus is probably one of the variants that spreads more quickly, it's more contagious, and that's why we've seen this spike in cases.
Now are students being sent home to their hometowns and dwellings outside of North Adams as a result of this move?
They will be. Students will be tested before they leave campus, so even though we're going to remote learning on Monday, students have until the following Sunday to move out of the residence areas. We've done that so that we can stage those move outs in a safe fashion. Those students will be able to be tested before they leave campus so that they know what those results are. For students that test positive and for the current students who are either in isolation because they are positive or quarantine because they were close contacts, they will stay here on campus through that quarantine period if they wish. We can't lock students into residence halls, but we have strongly encouraged them to stay here if they're in one of those categories, and subsequently, any student that might test positive before he, she, or they leave campus would be encouraged to stay on campus until that quarantine or isolation period is over.
What kind of communications have been in place between local and state officials about the situation at MCLA?
So last night I spent time, last night and this morning, with Commissioner Carlos Santiago. Carlos is the commissioner of the Department of Higher Education in Massachusetts. I also have talked with our chair of the board of trustees, Mohan Boodram. I've talked with other of my peers in the state at other state universities to let them know what we're doing and to find out what incidents they may be having on their campuses, and so all of those individuals were contacted last night and I spoke with each of them.