Coronavirus

Somerville and Medford are pressing Tufts to reconsider its reopening plan

As the university welcomes back its full undergraduate population, local mayors fear "a potentially unmanageable increase in infections" headed into the fall.

Tufts University's campus in Medford.

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While some Massachusetts colleges are reversing course on their plans to bring back students this fall in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts University is still expecting to invite back its full undergraduate population over the course of the next month — to the dismay of local elected officials.

In an open letter Monday, the mayors of Somerville and Medford urged Tufts, which straddles the border of the two densely populated cities, to reconsider its reopening plan, given the recent signs of a COVID-19 uptick in Massachusetts.

“We write to reiterate our serious concern about the University’s Fall 2020 campus reopening plan,” Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn wrote in the letter to Tufts President Anthony Monaco.

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Tufts officials say their reopening plan “goes above and beyond all local, state and federal guidelines for reopening higher education.” However, unlike neighboring colleges such as Harvard and MIT, the university plans to welcome back its entire undergraduate population on a staggered basis beginning this Sunday through Sept. 13.

According to Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins, the university expects to have 3,400 undergraduates in on-campus housing and about 2,100 additional undergraduates living in Medford, Somerville, and surrounding communities, who will attend classes either in person, online, or in hybrid formats.

Some of the school’s post-graduate programs — which accounted for a total of 5,781 students last year — will continue with online-only classes for the fall semester, including the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on its Medford-Somerville campus.

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Still, Curtatone and Lungo-Koehn say Tufts needs to do more to reduce its local student population, as well as provide more clarity around its enforcement protocols — particularly when it comes to follow-up, disciplinary action, health screening, and testing for off-campus students.

“We believe we are at another critical juncture in this ongoing and evolving crisis, where decisions that can markedly impact the transmission of this virus must be taken,” they wrote.

Joint Statement from Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn on Tufts University’s…

Posted by City of Somerville (Official) on Monday, August 10, 2020

The two Democratic mayors cited a recent New York Times article that found more than 6,600 coronavirus cases were linked to colleges in the United States. And while they acknowledged that “a complete suppression of viral transmission is impossible,” Curtatone and Lungo-Koehn raised concerns that Tufts developed its reopening plan before evidence surfaced of a mid-summer uptick in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts.

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Since mid-July, the state began to see a small flareup in the percentage of positive COVID-19 test rates, though it has more recently dipped back down. And the statewide transmission rate has hovered around the threshold where the contagion will spread.

As a result, officials in Somerville and Medford approved plans last week to begin the K-12 school year on a remote-only basis for most students. And Curtatone has slowed the statewide reopening process in Somerville.

Curtatone and Lungo-Koehn say Tufts should similarly reassess “through a peer-review process” and further delay the return of students from New England, New York, and New Jersey.

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“We are concerned that inviting students to return so quickly and without a more careful staggered approach, without proper time for assessment and necessary adjustments, will significantly increase the risk of transmission in our communities and catalyze a potentially unmanageable increase in infections as we enter the fall and winter seasons,” they wrote. “Tufts students, staff, and faculty are an integral part of both of our communities and our ultimate goal is a safe resumption of the University’s operation that balances all of our community members’ needs.”

Collins, however, disputed the notion that Tufts’ reopening plan doesn’t already protect the school’s community members. In a statement, the university spokesman said their approach is based on “the work and guidance of medical and scientific experts.”

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Tufts has built modular dormitories on its tennis courts to house students who might get sick.

Under the current plan, Tufts will first bring back “out-of-region” students, who will be required to quarantine until they have at least three negative COVID-19 tests. Once they have completed their quarantine, Tufts plans to bring back students from the Northeast, who will have to quarantine until they get one negative test result.

Throughout the semester, all students — both living on and off campus — will be tested twice a week, as will employees and contractors in areas such as dining and custodial services. Student-facing faculty and staff will be tested once a week.

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Collins said that Tufts is also conducting “an extensive education and social norms campaign to impress upon students the need to observe all protocols, including masking and social distancing,” both on and off campus.

“Infractions of policies will be considered individually, with enforcement along a continuum according to the seriousness of the infraction, including potential separation from the university for egregious infractions that put public health at great risk,” Collins said.

While he gave no indication that Tufts would make additional changes in response to the letter Monday, Collins said the university will continue to “work closely with local officials to discuss our reopening plans and to address any questions or concerns they may have.”

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“We look forward to finding new ways to partner with our host communities as we continue to navigate through this pandemic,” Collins said.

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