MCLA has signs around the campus reminding everyone to mask up and social distance.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Move-in weekend at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has generally been a celebratory affair as hundreds of students show up with parents and family in tow to prepare for the fall semester.
This year was a low-key affair as the annual event played out over several days with staggered arrivals and mandated COVID-19 testing — another sign of the changes wrought by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"It looks very different, we've spread out moving over a few more days," said Gina Puc, dean of enrollment management and community relations. "[Students have] been encouraged and instructed to bring one car with them and one helper."
Instead of student volunteers helping move, faculty and staff were on hand to greet and to direct students to their single rooms. A drive-through testing facility was set up in the facility department's parking lot on Ashland Street.
About half the college's total enrollment of 1,180 is expected to attend in person this fall, including at the extension campus in Pittsfield. Puc said that was projected at about 600 but it will be a few weeks before the final numbers are known. The rest of the student body will be working remotely — after Thanksgiving break, everyone will switch to remote.
Students have to sign what the college is calling the Trailblazer Agreement, guidelines for health and safety that they are expected to abide by, such as gatherings and use of facilities. Those attending on campus must wear face coverings, wash hands, monitor their health, take COVID-19 tests when asked and work with the contact tracing program.
"Remember that the opportunity to remain on campus to live and learn depends on our ability to control the spread of COVID-19, which is dependent upon all community members adhering to the guidelines set by MCLA and our local and state health agencies," reads the return to campus guide.
Violations will be dealt with via the college's code of conduct through the student services division.
The reopening of colleges and universities during the pandemic has seen further spread of the coronavirus that has infected more than 6 million in the United States. CNN reported on Sunday that there have been more than 8,700 recent new cases at colleges and universities, 1,200 at the University of Alabama alone.
One case was reported Sunday at nearby Williams College, which also has set up a perimeter around the campus and Spring Street that students aren't supposed to break.
That type of geographic limitation won't work at MCLA.
"We are integrated into the community and a large portion of our students are commuters," Puc said, adding that the college will be diligent in monitoring social distancing measures and masking. "Students are being tested upon arrival so that will help in mitigating spread."
All resident students are being tested on arrival on campus and once a week through September. After that, 20 to 25 percent of the student body will be scheduled for randomized testing. Commuter students will be offered testing by appointment through MCLA's health services.
Puc said the college is contracted with the Broad Institute for testing and that results are expected in 24-48 hours. Broad has been running "a slick operation" of up to 30,000 tests a day at this point, she noted. "As new as it is for everyone it's been relatively seamless to get it up and running."
MCLA is also planning an online public dashboard similar to what Williams has done; the private Williamstown college is starting its third week of testing.
"We're lucky in that as a regional state university a majority of our students are coming from low-risk areas," Puc said.
The college has been monitoring daily directives, seven-day average positive test rates and bed and ICU capacity, she said, as well as setting aside isolation beds.
The virus has intertwined public health and education, forcing schools to innovate in ways they've never considered — from the basics such as hand-sanitizing stations to cameras in classrooms for synchronous learning.
"I think it's a moment of opportunity, higher ed has really come together. There are regular meetings we attend, we've been talking to our colleagues at Williams College," Puc said. "The stress and uncertainty is balanced by how the entire collge community has come together ... that's been sort of a silver lining in this for all of us."
Most importantly, she said, the college wants students to have "as close to a normal experience as possible."
Berkshire County has among the lowest transmission rates for COVID-19. Since March, there have been 661 positive cases identified and 46 deaths; there have been no hospitalizations for the virus in several weeks.
Nahjai Scott was arriving for her first year at MCLA from the Boston area. The environmental science major said she was excited to be on campus.
"Everybody's worried," she said when asked if she was concerned about COVID-19 spread. "I feel like at first, you're definitely going to be very worried. But you know, a lot of people are in the same boat. So we're all kind of going through that together."
Scott had read through the precautions being taken and said it made her more confident.
"I feel like soon you'll get used to it and settle in and it'll be all good," she said.
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