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  • Cameron Morsberger

Boston Residents Voice Concerns Over BU’s Reopening and Its Threat to the Larger Community

In August, as universities across the country prepared for an influx of students back to campus, Boston University (BU) became a target of anti-reopening protests from students, faculty and Boston residents. A range of dissenters gathered on August 13th, almost three weeks before classes resumed, to object to the administration’s decision to reopen campus and its potential consequences on the larger Boston community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rally, titled, “Protest from Anywhere,” refers to BU’s hybrid classroom system, “Learn from Anywhere,” in which students can choose whether to attend their classes virtually or in-person throughout the semester. The BU PhD Student Coalition (PSC), which hosted the event on Marsh Plaza, expressed their desire for free coronavirus testing not only for BU-affiliated persons, but also for those living in neighborhoods on or adjacent to campus.

Protestors gathered physically outside of Marsh Chapel, but also participated via Zoom and drove across Commonwealth Avenue on bikes and in cars with signs, many reading, “Be Better BU.” Many concerns stemmed from the anticipated impact of students both on and off-campus and their role in the spread of coronavirus.

Included in the Coalition’s demands were to provide free PPE (personal protective equipment) for BU community members as well as to “de-densify campus” to lessen the potential spread of the virus. The PSC explains in their online mission statements that their goals as an organization include “organiz[ing] collective, practical action to catalyze necessary changes to institutional policies,” as well as, “connect[ing] with and inform[ing] the public, government officials and institutions, outside media organizations, and others about BU issues that affect the Boston community, Massachusetts community, and higher education community at large.”

BU had implemented testing procedures and announced the hybrid learning model for all students in May and in June, respectively. Despite the announcement of the program, the community of Brookline, Allston, and surrounding neighborhoods protested University administration for their promotion of in-person classes.

Since reopening, BU has provided students with two to three weekly tests, and has since completed over 100,000 on campus tests with a 0.08% positivity rate as of Sept 21.

Currently, the tests are only campus-wide — for students, staff and faculty — at four separate asymptomatic testing locations. And with the capacity to perform thousands of such tests per day, residents protested the fact that BU was not opening up such resources to the broader community, where BU students inevitably enter and interact with those neighborhoods.

In terms of on-campus housing, BU residences have reduced capacity: quads became doubles and most triples were changed into doubles. These “households” also established schedules to use and clean shared bathrooms and other spaces.

Housing, academic buildings and dining halls have signage on floors and walls directing the direction of foot traffic to promote distancing, and hand sanitizer stations are posted at most entrances.

The largest visual change to campus life includes the mandatory face coverings both indoors and outdoors — the Back2BU website, which serves as a directory for new COVID-19 related policies, includes a descriptive page devoted to acceptable masks and guides for correct mask wearing.

On August 26th, Kenneth Elmore, BU’s Dean of Students, sent a campus-wide email detailing “COVID-19 Violations and Repercussions” for student gatherings — groups of 25 or larger will face semester-long suspensions and be unable to attend class until the spring.

Social media has catalyzed many students to report such gatherings to the rest of the campus community. Instagram accounts, including @bu_gigs and @blacksheep_bu, have begun posting photos and videos surrounding campus safety in an effort to hold the student body accountable for their larger impact.

On September 13th, the University acknowledged and addressed one such post, in which students were filmed celebrating and drinking in the Student Village, but no action against the students has yet been taken.

But protestors worried that BU Administration is to blame, since they decided to bring students — and consequently illness — to the greater Boston area amid the pandemic.

Since coronavirus reached the United States, over 88,000 cases have been reported on college campuses, according to data provided by The New York Times. These positive clusters are largely a consequence of “super spreader events,” where a small number of asymptomatic cases can infect many people at once.

On August 18th, days after the BU protest, the World Health Organization stated in a press briefing that young people are big contributors to the spread of the virus, and because symptoms are less prone to show themselves in younger age groups, these individuals are unknowingly passing it to more vulnerable demographics.

By August 13th, Massachusetts confirmed over 110,000 total cases, with a weekly average of about 350 new daily cases. Since then, the state has trended similarly, despite the wave of students entering out of state and abroad. Boston in particular continued to trend downward through mid August and September, currently observing under 3,000 active cases.

Other Boston schools, including Northeastern University (NEU) and Emerson College, are also operating with a hybrid system, but other schools, including Harvard University, will be remote for the entire academic year and plan on gradually bringing more students back to campus.

For testing, NEU administers testing similar to BU — undergraduates and graduates, regardless of living accommodations, are tested every three days and fill out of a wellness survey akin to BU’s daily symptom checker. Additionally, NEU’s positivity rate is slightly smaller: 0.03% as of Sept 19.

Northeastern has also made similar policy shifts in regard to socializing on campus. On Sept 4, 11 NEU students were suspended for the Fall semester after they were found congregating in an on-campus residence. According to the university’s guidelines and Massachusetts state order, no group over eight people can gather, masked or unmasked, making NEU’s rules stricter in comparison to BU.

A similar protest regarding campus re-openings was staged outside the home of Tufts University President Anthony Monaco days after the BU protest on Aug 19. And others critical of returning students and in-person class experiences is Boston City Councilor Liz Breadon, who publicized her concerns with off-campus students and equitable medical and testing attention for those attending class but not living in university housing.

Thus, protestors advocating for community health protections on BU’s campus called into question not only the University’s administrative decisions but also all of Boston’s higher education, where other colleges are making equally impactful choices — choices that are mostly similar if not the same as BU’s. And future protests could be eminent with a predicted “second wave” of COVID-19 this fall, which is already ramping up in European countries.


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