By Alana Melanson
LOWELL — While many other colleges and universities are struggling with clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks on and around their campuses, UMass Lowell has only had two positive tests since the beginning of the semester.
According to university officials, the combination of careful planning and the ongoing commitment of students and employees to adhere to safety guidelines have been key in limiting the number of cases.
Those two positive tests were in the very first week of the semester when a limited number of students were just coming to campus, and as of Tuesday, there have not been any further.
Like many other college presidents and chancellors, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said she went into the fall semester not knowing what to expect, and how the students would respond to the plans put before them. She said the university “couldn’t be more proud of the students” and how they’ve conducted themselves on campus and in online classrooms.
“It is a credit to them as students that they really do have that sense of shared responsibility for each other, which was taken so seriously,” Moloney said.
She pointed to strong messaging, working with student leadership and a strong campus culture that “we’re all in this together” as being key in the achievement. Moloney said she is also grateful to her “incredibly talented team,” including facilities, emergency operations and engineers and scientists that have helped to plan everything out and been major contributors to the university’s success thus far.
With only two positive cases in about 5,500 tests conducted, the university has a 0.037% positivity rate — significantly less than the state’s 1.1% positivity rate as of Oct. 4. Moloney said it’s even more significant considering Lowell is currently classified as a “red zone,” or higher risk, community.
Normally, about 4,500 students would be in the residence halls, but this semester only about 700 are living on campus, Moloney said.
She said the university initially planned to have about 2,000 students come back to campus and about 30% of instruction be conducted face-to-face, but those plans changed in August when they saw the outbreaks that were occurring in southern schools. Out of an abundance of caution, Moloney said, UMass Lowell scaled back its residential and instruction plans significantly, allowing only students who could make a good case to live on campus and conducting most instruction remotely.
At the moment, she said, students living on campus are mostly those who had lab graduation requirements, athletes, out-of-state or international students and those who otherwise call UMass Lowell home.
All students who are on campus, as well as athletes currently practicing and faculty and staff, are required to be tested weekly as part of UMass Lowell’s surveillance testing program. There are also a number of high-interaction off-campus students who participate in health care clinicals or education within the K-12 setting, for instance, that are also required to be tested, according to Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Julie Chen.
Chen said the idea is to test those who are asymptomatic in order to “head off any potential outbreaks before they have a chance to grow.”
Those who are symptomatic or know they have been exposed are encouraged to be tested by their health care providers or through Health Services, she said.
About 1,000 people are tested each week in a designated place on the second floor of University Crossing, Chen said.
Those undergoing the testing self-administer a double nasal swab each time at a designated time, and then the samples are sent to the Broad Institute in Cambridge for processing, she said. Chen said the turnaround time is very quick, within 24 hours and often faster.
Once there is a positive test, the person has to go into isolation, either at the Inn & Conference Center or after safely traveling home, she said. Positive cases and relevant information, including their dorm housing layout and classes they are in, are immediately reported to the Lowell Board of Health for contact tracing to determine if anybody else may have been in close contact, Chen said.
She said the testing is only one piece of a comprehensive plan to keep everyone as safe as possible, including masks and other personal protective equipment, social distancing and sanitizing. For instance, allowing researchers and others working in labs to access them on modified schedules using social distancing has enabled the university to continue to conducting critical research related to COVID, as well as energy, sustainability and robotics, Chen said.
Other area higher education institutions haven’t been able to keep their COVID numbers quite as low as UMass Lowell.
At Merrimack College in North Andover, for instance, there have been 100 positive cases out of 28,457 tests performed from Aug. 13 through Sept. 28, an overall 0.351% positivity rate, according to the college’s website.
A sudden outbreak of 17 positive cases at Monican Hall Sept. 22 resulted in the temporary closure of the building and forced all 266 residents of the hall into mandatory isolation or 14-day quarantine to limit further transmission of the virus and allow professional cleaning of the entire building. An additional 47 Monican Hall students
In the week that followed, three commuter students, one employee and eight residential students also tested positive. The college decided to temporarily shift all classes to remote learning, with face-to-face instruction resuming Wednesday.
Despite the pandemic, UMass Lowell enrolled its largest student body ever this fall, at 18,394 students across its undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs — an increase of 56 from last year. Among them are about 3,000 new first-year and transfer students, and the student body as a whole represents all 50 states and more than 120 countries.
Moloney said the university is delighted students came in record numbers, and there is evidence many heard about the great experience students had with online education last semester, noting growth in the online graduate programs.
She said she is hopeful more students can come back to campus in the spring, but, “we still have a ways to go.”
Moloney said any changes will be done in “very small steps” beginning this semester, such as with the launching of the men’s and women’s basketball and hockey pre-conference games the week of Thanksgiving.
In the spring, she said the hope is to shoot for 25% of courses being taught face-to-face while the rest are remote, and to increase dorms to maybe 25% capacity.
“We’ll look at how the rest of the semester goes,” Moloney said. “We’ve learned to be patient and assess the numbers as they come in, but right now that is what we’re looking for.”
She said things have gone “extraordinarily well” on a modified scale and they’ve learned a lot.
“We’re all looking forward to having this all behind us at some time,” Moloney said. “In the meantime, I’m just grateful to the community at UMass Lowell. The faculty, the staff and the students have really pulled together in this magnificent way, and I think they are serving as the light for others to see that we can do this.”