MCLA, other small state schools pledge fall return for students

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, as well as other smaller schools across the state, will offer a "blended model of instruction with face-to-face and remote coursework for the fall semester," according to a statement released late Thursday by a group of public higher education institutions.

On-campus learning will return to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the fall.

MCLA in North Adams is among a number of public higher education institutions that announced late Thursday that they plan to offer a "blended model of instruction with face-to-face and remote coursework for the fall semester."

State universities in Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield and Worcester also plan to reopen, as well as the College of Art and Design in Boston, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay also plan to return to dorms and attend on-campus classes as the state copes with the uncertainties posed by COVID-19.

The schools announced their plans Thursday night, about three months after students were sent off campuses to pursue remote learning.

"Because the state universities have very few large lecture-style classes, and maintain low student-to-faculty ratios, we are confident our campuses will be able to provide students some level of in-classroom instruction," said Vincent Pedone, executive director of the State Universities Council of Presidents. "Our campuses are well-positioned to adapt to gathering size limitations and social distancing requirements, while providing the high-quality and affordable programing that is our hallmark."

The large University of Massachusetts system, which has campuses in Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and Worcester, has not announced its plans for the fall semester, and a spokesman for UMass President Marty Meehan said each of the UMass campuses will be making final plans available in the coming weeks.

In a statement to the MCLA community, President James Birge cited survey data showing that 78 percent of respondents wanted to see a return to in-class learning in the fall, and one-third said they would transfer out if their college continued online course delivery.

"Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone; of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working," Birge wrote. "We are prepared to change this plan if confronted with new information or recommendations from the state."

"We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally," he said. "MCLA's tuition and room and board costs are well below the typical private university, and new measures like single rooms for all students and free laundry facilities will allow us to stay as close to the traditional residential experience for our students, while also increasing measures around health and safety."

The announcement Thursday came hours after state public health officials reported 271 new cases of COVID-19 and 36 new deaths, raising total reported infections in the state since the outbreak began to 106,422 and increasing the death toll to 7,770. COVID-19 hospitalizations, the seven-day average of the positive test rate and the three-day average of COVID-19 deaths continued to trend in downward in Massachusetts but are rising in several southern and western states.

The state universities group said phase three of Gov. Charlie Baker's economic reopening plan is "expected by mid-August," and said they plan to follow state and federal COVID-19 health and safety protocols and procedures. Baker, according to his own plan, could move the state into phase three as soon as June 29.

The nine state universities said they are accepting admission and residence hall applications through the summer, and will be releasing more detailed "safe return plans" in the coming days and weeks.

"We are hearing from our students a demand for the return to in-classroom instruction and a return to their on-campus housing," Pedone said. "Our students value the personal attention afforded them by our small class sizes and enjoy the residence life experience offered at all our state universities."

The state Board of Higher Education plans to meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday with members participating remotely in a meeting accessible on Zoom.