City Councilor Kenzie Bok sent a letter Monday to the presidents of Boston University and Northeastern University, encouraging both institutions to switch to an entirely remote format for the Fall 2020 semester. Bok released the letter publicly in a tweet the same day.
Both universities currently have plans to implement a hybrid model that will allow students to attend classes remotely, in person or in combination — BU via its Learn from Anywhere model and Northeastern via its Hybrid NUFlex model.
Bok wrote that the influx of returning students could pose health threats to the Boston community while the COVID-19 pandemic persists, highlighting the fact that BU and NEU’s student bodies consist mostly of students from outside Massachusetts. In the letter, Bok referred to the return of out-of-state college students as the “biggest public health risk to Boston at the moment.”
“The best ‘harm reduction’ strategy at this juncture is simply not to encourage your far-flung student bodies to return to Boston this month,” Bok wrote.
The return of college students to Boston in late August and early September constitutes the largest population swing of any large city in the country, according to Bok.
Bok wrote that both institutions have given great attention to planning for students’ return, from testing capacity to dorm de-densification to cleaning protocols. However, she wrote she is concerned about their measures regarding off-campus students.
“Your institutional plans for off-campus communities are concerningly weaker,” Bok wrote. “The seniors and other vulnerable populations who live in these neighborhoods must not be put at such elevated risk.”
Bok also called for the implementation of measures such as isolation housing, quarantine monitoring and off-campus monitoring at BU and NEU. She wrote the universities should be cognizant of and accountable for off-campus violations of health and safety guidelines, and recommended University punishment for large off-campus gatherings held by students.
Despite Bok’s request, BU and NEU are set on reopening as planned.
Rachel Lapal, assistant vice president of Public Relations at BU, wrote in an email that the University is in close contact with Bok on testing protocols and public health practices.
“We will continue to work with the Councilor and her constituents,” Lapal wrote, “to prioritize their health and safety along with the health and safety of the entire BU community.”
Off-campus students who test positive will be given instructions on how to safely isolate in their own residence and will have daily check-ins with BU’s team of healthcare providers, Lapal wrote. Out-of-state students will be tested upon arrival to campus and receive their test results within 24 hours.
“During the 14-day post arrival period, students should limit their movement to their assigned room,” Lapal wrote, “and only leave to pick up food or for medical appointments and testing.”
Lapal added that after move-in begins, BU will make de-identified test results publicly available.
Renata Nyul, vice president for communications at NEU, wrote in an email that Northeastern is similarly prepared for students who return to Boston for Fall studies.
“Northeastern has undertaken countless extraordinary measures to plan for a safe fall semester, including launching a large-scale testing program, strict protocols regarding masking and distancing, and a restructuring of dining and residential life,” Nyul wrote. “Northeastern plans to move ahead with the plans for the Fall 2020 semester that were announced in June.”
Bok said in an interview that BU and NEU have both been in touch with her about the details of their plans, but that these communications have not changed her stance on the issue. She said she is particularly concerned about how off-campus students will quarantine when they arrive in Boston.
“It’s going to be implausible in a lot of off-campus housing,” Bok said. “One thing that our neighborhoods are really concerned about is how proactive the universities are going to be monitoring off-campus gatherings and other things that people might do to defy the public health guidance.”
Bok said her goal is not to discourage students who rely on their universities for housing, food and other resources throughout the academic year from returning to Boston, but to lower the number of returning students as much as possible.
“It is a numbers game and the more we can reduce the number of people coming back, the better,” Bok said. “We want to save the opportunities to be living on campus for the people who really need them.”
Bok cited Berklee College of Music, which moved all courses to an online format, as an example for other institutions to follow.
“Berklee’s made the switch and they’re actually taking the money they were going to spend on student testing and they’re giving all their students these $2,500 grants to help with upgrading Internet or equipment related to musicianship,” Bok said. “They’re trying to think about, ‘How do we set our students up for success with remote learning?’”
Bok, who is set to teach a remote course at Harvard University next semester, said that while in-person learning is superior, the current situation precludes it as a possibility.
Sage Holloway, a rising senior in BU’s College of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an email that although she understands the risk related to population influx, remote learning is not necessarily feasible for some students from an educational perspective.
“As a film major, taking online courses is honestly just nothing like in-person classes. Tuition is expensive and if BU isn’t going to lower tuition for online classes, then I’m not even going to consider continuing my education right now,” Holloway wrote. “Without using equipment and working with people, it’s discouraging and I’m not getting the experience or knowledge I signed up for.”
Holloway added that some students have chosen to take a gap year, but this is not a viable option for her either.
“If I couldn’t take in-person classes, I would delay my graduation and I have no idea what I would do in the meantime,” Holloway wrote. “Without my degree being finished, most places aren’t hiring for jobs in the field I want, and I would just feel like I am wasting my time.”
Holloway wrote that even though they may not live there year-round, many students call Boston home, and for some, returning to campus may be their only chance at a productive learning environment.
“BU students are a part of the Boston community, too,” Holloway wrote. “Many of us come from homes that aren’t good for online learning, and providing only remote classes would rob so many students of a good education.”
Holloway wrote that BU students can take action to be a positive presence in Boston.
“We need to take responsibility for protecting each other from this virus, especially more vulnerable Bostonians and that means that campus life is going to look a lot different,” Holloway wrote. “But it’s a cost that many students are willing to pay.”