In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

Rep. Mindy Domb and I wanted to provide some clarification on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s plan to return students in the fall and the University’s budget picture.

These are uncertain times. Amid the near constant difficulty and hardship, institutions like the University are akin to a kind of steadying bedrock for our wider community.

I’m so grateful to have Rep. Domb as a steadfast partner and staunch ally in supporting public higher education and its people, as we also advocate for the communities and residents of our districts.

On returning students to campus

We have received considerable outreach on this issue and are aware of the media attention this issue has drawn.

After sending a joint letter to the University, we received a briefing from the Chancellor and his team on UMass Amherst’s plan to return students to the campus and the region this fall and their response to the surrounding community’s concerns. We learned about the campus’s planned testing, quarantine, and contact tracing protocols to help ensure the safety of their students (those who are living on and off campus), faculty and staff, as well as the broader community in Amherst and surrounding towns. We learned that the University is addressing virtually all of the requests made by the town of Amherst in a letter to the campus, which was made public. This includes the establishment of a UMass-specific COVID-19 Working Group consisting of town of Amherst officials, UMass Amherst’s public health officials, Rep. Domb, and myself. We hope this group will also include the Amherst Regional Public Schools Superintendent. This working group will help to ensure timely communication and updates.

We will provide a full summary of all of UMass’ full efforts in this area very soon. We are also in close conversation with the region’s other colleges and will do our best to convey what we learn from them.

We know that community members, the business community, faculty, and staff have concerns — many of which we share — and we will be working with the University and other stakeholders to monitor this return to campus very closely. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us directly and thanks to the many who already have. We convey every concern directly to UMass officials so that we can help highlight and address the issues we hear from constituents.

About UMass and public health 

Many people may not be aware that the campus acts as its own public board of health and reports directly to the Commonwealth, thereby taking the burden of this extra related work off of the community and local board of health. This also means that the campus has significant public health expertise and experience in maintaining health and safety on the campus, responding to (and containing) outbreaks of infectious diseases, and mobilizing health resources. The University has been actively using this expertise and its resources in developing and implementing its response to the coronavirus.

We will certainly remain vigilant and will continue to push the state for clear guidance and support. We will continue to seek clarity and timely information from the University about their plans and implementation in order to share it with you and our community, and advocate on behalf of our districts.

About the fiscal year 2021 budget

We also spoke Monday with UMass officials about the University’s fiscal year 2021 budget picture. We are hearing a great, great deal from constituents on this issue.

There was a recent Daily Hampshire Gazette article noting system-wide deficits. For clarification, as of now UMass Amherst has not laid off any full-time, permanent employees as a result of the pandemic and the related budget challenges, though there have been furloughs. Regarding furloughs, we, along with our teams, have engaged deeply to ensure that the University has the state resources and connections it needs to serve its faculty, staff, and graduate student employees.

This is an important reminder that the Amherst campus is part of a larger University system and is often subject to the system’s rules and decisions.

As many know, COVID-19 has caused budget problems throughout all of state government due to the precipitous drop in revenue and the significant increases in health care and public health costs. We have also seen tremendous hardship at an individual and community level due to increased food and housing insecurity many have experienced as a result of this health and economic crisis.

Because the campus has one of the largest residential and dining programs in the country, last spring’s early closure and accompanying revenue losses had a significant impact on campus finances. This financial impact has been coupled with a reduction in the number of students returning to campus this fall and new costs associated with preparing for the health and safety of students and employees on campus.

We understand from the Chancellor that the campus is exploring all options in an effort to minimize the number of personnel who will be affected by any reductions. Again, they have not announced layoffs or additional furloughs at this time.

And we want to be clear:

  • We stand with UMass in our strong advocacy for a second round of funding from the federal government and are grateful to Congressman McGovern and Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren for their strong advocacy. As a reminder, the state cannot spend more money than it takes in by running a budget deficit, but the federal government can and should expand to meet this crisis.
  • We will also work with state colleagues to ensure that higher education funding remains a priority in the Commonwealth’s budget. As a reminder, we are original supporters of the Cherish Act which seeks to bolster public higher education spending by adding an additional $500 million over five years. We’re facing COVID-19 hurdles but not giving up that fight. We are educating ourselves and our colleagues on the role public funding for higher education can and should play in our Commonwealth’s economic recovery.
  • We believe that robust public spending in times of economic crisis is critical and we will support measures to raise necessary progressive revenue. 
  • We recognize and appreciate the relationship between the Amherst economy and the three colleges that are located in the town, and that a strong higher education community is beneficial to the town and our region. 

The University has candidly acknowledged that nothing is off the table; everything is under consideration as officials make difficult budget decisions. We have come to understand that the University is treating personnel decisions as a last resort in addressing any budget deficits. On behalf of our constituents we have made it clear that we support this critical last resort posture. 

We agree with constituents that the University works because UMass employees make it work. 

That call to action drives us forward.

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