NORTH ADAMS — The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will send students home and shift to remote learning after a surge in COVID-19 cases among resident students.
The college announced Thursday that it would move classes online starting Monday and close dorms for the semester April 11.
Since March 22, the college has identified 28 positive cases through campus testing, according to MCLA President James Birge. The cases appear to be clustered in residence halls, he said, with more than 6 percent of resident students now COVID-19-positive and 18 percent in total either isolated or quarantined.
Birge told The Eagle that the rise in cases was a result of social activity in residence halls and off campus.
“Through our testing and tracing protocol, we discovered that the spread is limited to the [Flagg] townhouses and some social gathering activity there,” he said. “And it had spread a little to other residence areas. But, through our tracing protocol, we discovered no spread in labs, offices and classrooms.”
The move comes after MCLA identified a cluster among residents of the Flagg Townhouse Apartment Complex and locked down the building.
Birge called the result “frustrating” but said he did not blame the student body as a whole.
“The students have been wonderful for the past 13 months, better here than in most places,” Birge said. “I think what happened is, just like the rest of us, they’ve grown weary. … This happened to be a moment when they let their guard down.”
After the college finishes dealing with the public health threat, Birge added, students found to have held gatherings in violation of the college’s COVID-19 behavior agreement will be held accountable.
He said that college leaders had considered a temporary shift to remote but decided against a two-week pause, both for pedagogical reasons — classes end in about a month — and over fears that the number of cases could continue climbing.
“Our concern is with the other students quarantined who are asymptomatic,” Birge said. “Because of close contacts, we could see the numbers rise over the next week or two. Is there a wave coming we don’t see right now? We thought we would be more cautious and err on the side of public health.”
The new cases at the college likely contributed to the jump in the North Adams test positivity rate, which rose from just under 1 percent to nearly 2 percent over the past week. Mayor Tom Bernard said that he appreciated the college’s decision to prioritize public health.
“I don’t have info that says there’s a reason to think this has spread past campus into the larger North Adams community,” he told The Eagle. “But we’ll have to watch the data.”
He pointed out that, as cases rise across the Berkshires, the situation at the college should remind everyone to continue practicing mitigation, including avoiding gatherings.