Boston city councilor urges BU, Northeastern not to bring students back

Bok calls plans for campus reopenings this fall a public health threat 

BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR Kenzie Bok, whose district includes both the Boston University and Northeastern University campuses, says the schools are enormous assets to the city, from research and arts to the huge economic boost they bring to the neighborhoods that surround them. But as they prepare to welcome students back to campus, touting elaborate plans to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Bok has a one-word message for the universities: fuggetaboutit.

In a letter sent yesterday to the presidents of BU and Northeastern, Bok implores the schools to reverse course on reopening plans and only offer remote classes in light of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in the state. 

“While the focus of university reopening plans has been on methods of controlling transmission once students are here, the greatest public health risk to Boston at the moment is the sheer influx of individuals from out of state,” Bok wrote in the letter to BU president Robert Brown and Northeastern president Joseph Aoun. “Each of your institutions draws nearly three-quarters of your undergraduate students from out of state; for the safety of the city, as many of them as possible should stay home.” 

Bok said she has had numerous conversations with officials at the two universities since the pandemic erupted in March, but concluded the risks from bringing back thousands of students, many from areas that are currently experiencing big spikes in cases, are too great to justify such a move.

“I think we have to be really eyes wide open in Boston about the fact that we are like no other major American city,” Bok said of the city’s enormous student population. While Boston represents about 10 percent of the state population, she said the city hosts 34 percent of the 425,000 students attending college in Massachusetts. 

Bok said constituents in her district, which stretches from Beacon Hill to Mission Hill and the Fenway, including lots of older residents, have voiced serious concern to her about a sudden influx of thousands of students at a time when the state is seeing case numbers creep up. 

“We’re still at a stage where the number one harm-reduction thing we can do in terms of preventing a second outbreak is going virtual and not having all those students return right now,” Bok said. 

BU and Northeastern have both announced plans to allow undergraduates return to campus, while offering remote learning options for those who want that approach. The schools will modify many aspects of campus life, including class sizes and housing arrangements, and they  announced plans for extensive testing protocols. 

At Northeastern, all students will be tested for coronavirus immediately upon returning to campus, and then again on their third and fifth day back. All students will be asked to quarantine on arriving. Those whose first test is negative will be able to move out of quarantine mode, but only after a third negative test will they be able to take part in all campus activities, including in-person classes, according to a summary released last week by the university. 

What to do about the fall semester has been a vexing dilemma for higher education leaders across the country.

California’s vast state college system announced in May that most classes this fall would be online. Harvard announced in early June that all fall classes there would also be online, though 40 percent of undergraduates will be welcomed back to campus residential housing. But many other schools have announced plans similar to those at BU and Northeastern, which involve some mix of online and in-person courses.

Weighing on higher education leaders are the huge financial implications of the decisions, with room and board charges at residential colleges and universities making up a crucial part of their revenue stream. 

“Northeastern has undertaken countless extraordinary measures to plan for a safe fall semester, said Renata Nyul, the university’s vice president for communications, in a statement. “This includes launching a large-scale testing program, strict protocols around masking and healthy distancing, and completely reimagined approaches to dining and residential life. We are moving cautiously and carefully ahead with the plans we announced in June.”

BU announced plans to test undergraduate students every three days and graduate students weekly. 

“Boston University is in close contact with Councilor Bok on testing protocols and public health best practices,” said BU assistant vice president Rachel Lapal. “We will continue to work with the councilor and her constituents to prioritize their health and safety along with the health and safety of the entire BU community.” 

Boston hosts well over 100,000 college students, but any decision to put the brakes on their return would have to be made at the state level, by Gov. Charlie Baker, using the emergency powers he’s deployed throughout the pandemic. 

Mayor Marty Walsh met last week with leaders of Boston colleges and universities to hear details of their public health plans for the fall. He voiced during a press briefing last week about the return of thousands of students, but stopped short of urging that the schools call off plans for in-person classes this fall. 

“We need to stay vigilant as college students make their way back to Boston next month,” Walsh said. “I’m certainly concerned about thousands of people coming to Boston — especially from areas of the country that are experiencing recent surges of COVID-19 cases.” 

Bok credits BU and Northeastern for developing detailed plans to contend with the virus, including the robust campus testing schedules for students. But she remains unconvinced that all the measures will be enough to stop major outbreaks, calling it unrealistic to expect 18- to 22-year-olds to remain scrupulous about all the social distancing measures that are part of the prevention protocols. 

Bok said she is especially worried about virus outbreaks among students living off campus, where she said the universities should have staff on call to carry out “rapid incident response” to large gatherings, with strict sanctions for violators, including suspension for the rest of the semester.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“It seems to me like a perfect storm, but one we can see coming,” she said.