I am deeply grateful to you, our faculty, librarians, graduate assistants, and staff, for all that you do to give our students a high-quality educational experience and to continue to advance scholarship, discovery, innovation, and artistic creation.
My purpose in this message is to address some of your questions and share important information about the Fall 2021 semester. As we prepare for the Fall semester, some of you may be concerned about the return to campus. I am writing to reassure you of our commitment to your safety and that of all members of our community. Further information about measures taken to ensure health and safety can be found in the UMass Amherst Fall 2021 FAQ.
Our guidance is based on the scientific and healthcare expertise of our community and official state and Federal guidelines. It is clear from these sources that vaccination is the first and most powerful line of defense against the COVID-19 virus, including the Delta variant. Individuals who are fully vaccinated rarely become infected (e.g., breakthrough infections in MA represent 0.29% of vaccinated individuals), and those rare breakthrough infections don't typically cause severe illness (e.g., 0.01% of vaccinated people in MA have been hospitalized). Because of the effectiveness of the vaccine and our campus community’s high vaccination rates, we are able to open and repopulate the campus. Fall 2021 is not just a continuation of Spring 2021, when the vaccination was not yet available. All of the additional measures we are taking assist in that protection, but vaccination is the most important step.
To keep our campus safe, the campus has a mandatory vaccination requirement. As a campus community, we have risen to the challenge and then some. I am pleased to share with you that currently 98% of our domestic undergraduate and graduate students and 93% of faculty and staff are in compliance with the university’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. As someone who meets monthly with the provosts of large public universities from around the country, I can assure you that this truly is a remarkable and highly unusual achievement. Many institutions don’t come close to what we have achieved. The extremely high compliance rate for faculty, staff, and students is worth celebrating as a community. We owe our gratitude to our students for helping to keep our campus community safe. We also celebrate that our labor agreements with faculty and staff unions require vaccination. My sincere thanks to all faculty and staff for doing their part, and to our unions for their collaborative spirit.
We are daily inundated with news and information about the virus. I encourage you to consult the CDC website to follow the evolving understanding of the virus and its variants and to keep track of the latest guidance. Please note, however, that individual units, programs, departments, and instructors should follow University guidelines and public health approaches concerning COVID-19 and should not institute their own rules and requirements.
We must also recognize that there is a small percentage of students and employees who have received religious or medical exemptions from the vaccination requirement. For their own protection as well as the rest of our community, these individuals will be required to wear face masks and to participate in asymptomatic testing. For more information on compliance with unvaccinated testing requirements, visit the UMass Public Health Promotion Center.
As an additional level of protection for our community, face coverings in indoor public spaces were mandated beginning on Wednesday, August 11. All members of the UMass community (and visitors) are required to wear face coverings indoors. Face coverings must be worn in nearly all indoor public spaces, including classrooms, hallways, elevators, restrooms, breakrooms, entries and exits to buildings, laboratories, meeting rooms, shared offices, and shared work areas. Enforcement will be primarily done by the community as a whole and by modeling good behavior, similar to our successful on-campus tobacco ban.
I also understand there may be questions concerning masking while teaching, in classrooms, labs, and while holding office hours. Below is some guidance that will help answer those questions.
Some faculty members find it difficult to lecture while masked. A vaccinated instructor can choose to go unmasked while teaching if they can maintain at least six feet of distance from where students are sitting in the classroom. An instructor who chooses not to wear a mask in the classroom should explain why they are doing so, but that students should remain masked. An instructor may, of course, opt to wear a mask while teaching.
An instructor may also want to encourage students to speak more loudly when they have a question or are participating in a discussion in order to be heard. Even in pre-pandemic days, I found it to be a good practice to repeat questions and comments from soft-spoken students, particularly those sitting in the front rows.
The Center for Teaching and Learning is ready to provide guidance to faculty and instructors on how discussions can be handled in classrooms while students (and instructors) are masked. CTL is also available to assist instructors with planning ways to complement the curriculum delivery for student absences or other reasons. The Instructional Design, Engagement & Support/Instructional Media Lab group provides assistance with instructional technology, utilization of Echo 360, and usage of the Zoom, Moodle, and Blackboard platforms.
Public and private indoor spaces
My office has received questions concerning what is considered a public space. Conference rooms are an example of public indoor space where masks should be worn. We want to model good behavior for students while the face covering mandate is in place. However, one-person offices are considered private indoor space. Faculty can require students and visitors to wear face coverings during office hours, for example. As long as neighbors don’t object, faculty members can leave their doors open to keep air flowing and put up a sign outside the door letting visitors know their masking preference. Masks should also be worn in research labs when more than one person is present. I encourage everyone to be patient and respect the face covering wishes of their colleagues in their private spaces.
All offices and classrooms have been cleaned in preparation for the return of staff and students. As always, if you experience any building or instructional space issues that require assistance, such as issues related to temperature, access, custodial services and instructional space furniture, please call the Solutions Center at 413-545-6401. For more information on facilities and custodial services, please visit this FAQ.
Twice weekly testing of students and once weekly testing of faculty and staff is required for those with approved COVID-19 medical or religious exemption. Vaccinated faculty, staff, and students can get tested for free at their discretion. During the Fall semester, self-testing using kits and drop boxes will be available. For more information, please visit UMass Public Health Promotion Center.
If a student in your classroom/lab/studio tests positive for COVID-19, the student will be told to reach out to you and their other instructors to inform them of this positive test and to make accommodations for missed class time, as they will need to isolate for ten days since the time of exposure. It is extremely important that you treat any private health information you may directly or indirectly receive in a confidential manner and not share information on a student testing positive in your class. If you are notified of a positive test in your class/lab/studio, you do not need to take any action.
Accommodations can be made on a case-by-case basis through Accessible Workplace. Accommodation requests require medical documentation.
Interim Pandemic Policy for Students
All the students enrolled in your course have received the Interim Pandemic Policyfor students. Should a student violate the public health protocols within your classroom, lab or studio, we ask that you first talk to the student and remind them of the importance of complying with these protocols. Students will make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes are unintentional. A simple reminder can help put them back on the right track right away.
Should a student demonstrate repeated violations of the public health protocols after you have reminded them of the importance of complying, you are asked to submit a referral to the Student Conduct and Community Standards Office (SCCS) in the Dean of Students Office (Incident Reporting: Student Conduct Referral tab on right hand side of page). The SCCS will send the student a Behavioral Notice reiterating the expectations for student behavior, reinforcing the importance of these expectations, describing the possible consequences of subsequent incidents, and offering to answer the student’s questions. If behavior is persistent and/or egregious, the student’s behavior will be evaluated in relation to the policies outlined in the Code of Student Conduct.
In closing, I want to remind you that we are working on this together as a campus community. As we approach the Fall semester, we should pause and remember that Fall 2021 is not Spring 2021. We trust and listen to the science. We have vaccinations to help protect us against the virus and other supportive mitigation tools – washing hands, social distancing, and face coverings, for example. Moreover, we must not forget the mental health and well-being of our students and community. We know that many members of the campus community struggled with mental health issues and were impacted by the isolation and the stress of managing through the pandemic. Let’s support each other and practice patience and understanding for others and ourselves.
I remain optimistic for the future and deeply grateful for our university community which I joined 36 years ago.
Thank you for all that you do.
Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs