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UMass Outbreak Pressures Student Workers

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Facebook: UMass Amherst
UMass Amherst logo

A COVID-19 outbreak continues to mar the start of the spring semester at UMass Amherst. WAMC’s Jesse King spoke with students about how the spike is impacting student workers.

The campus already shut down most campus operations last week and raised its COVID-19 risk level, triggering a switch to remote learning until at least February 21. Under the “high risk” designation, all students – both on and off campus – are required to self-sequester or face disciplinary action.

"Students shouldn't be in a position where they're choosing between their jobs to pay for food, groceries - tuition, even - versus getting a conduct charge and having any type of consequences, from a letter of apology to expulsion."

Such an order may come as a relief to local neighborhoods, but for some students it brought anxiety. On Wednesday, the college’s Student Government Association passed a resolution opposing the order for student workers, many of whom, it says, rely on jobs for rent and daily expenses. Jennie Chang is the SGA’s vice president.

“Students shouldn’t be in a position where they’re choosing between their jobs to pay for food, groceries – tuition, even – versus getting a conduct charge and having any type of consequences, from a letter of apology to expulsion," she explains. 

SGA Secretary of Technology Adam Lechowicz echoes that sentiment, saying student workers are being harmed by the actions of more “irresponsible students.”

After keeping most students off-campus last fall, UMass allowed as much as 60 percent of its typical campus population to return for the spring. Lechowicz notes students weren’t required to test negative before coming back – but they were tested twice upon arrival, and expected to complete a back-to-campus quarantine. The spike in cases, which began with the start of classes on February 1, has largely been attributed to students breaking that quarantine, in addition to other health and safety protocols.  

“What happened was students who moved in on that Friday before classes started had the opportunity, fully, to go out that weekend on Saturday and Sunday. And we’ve heard through the grapevine of multiple large events of 50 students plus, maskless," he says. "So the fact that [UMass Amherst] didn’t have measures in place to really stop people from leaving their rooms, from breaking that quarantine is strange. They knew that this would happen…I can’t explain it.”

Masslive.com reports UMass suspended its Theta Chi fraternity for hosting back-to-back parties just before the start of the classes. The paper says over 350 students, many of them on-campus residents, face punishment for breaking quarantine, ignoring capacity limits, failing to wear masks, and more.

In response, the Amherst Board of Health extended an emergency order placing capacity limits and a 9:30 p.m. curfew on certain businesses. In a recent message to student workers, UMass said it is reaching out to area employers through the Amherst Business Improvement District and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, asking for their “cooperation, patience, and understanding” during the temporary measure. Chang says many businesses have either told student employees not to come in, or closed entirely.

"UMass can work with the town government to be clear about what safety measures are happening, and kind of reassure the town that they're going to keep the community safe and that it's OK for students to come into work and not potentially spread COVID," she added. 

UMass has set up a Student Employment Assistance Grant program offering up to $300 for those unable to work. Students can apply through February 19. UMass also recommends that students check out its Single Stop guide for accessing resources, and that they apply for unemployment assistance through the state – something Chang says may not be quick enough for those needing help right now.

There is some good news for on-campus employees: UMass has agreed to pay them for any shifts lost to the shutdown. SGA Secretary of University Policy Sara McKenna normally depends on a little extra cash from teaching spin classes at the campus recreation center. She attributes her regained wages to the work of the SGA, including a student-led email campaign directed toward school officials.

“[It was a] really excellent success thanks to a lot of student activism and collective power, students joining together to push the administration on that," says McKenna. "But we are still really concerned about students who work off campus who are still facing sanctions for going to work.”

McKenna spoke with WAMC News Friday, when the campus was up to 603 active COVID-19 cases. UMass Amherst has over 24,000 undergraduate students. 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."