Five College Students Return to Campus but Face Disparate Challenges

The college has opened its classroom doors to Five College Consortium students for the first time since the pandemic began. Enrollees of UMass Amherst, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and Smith College face new challenges due to pandemic safety considerations.

For the first time since the pandemic began, the college has opened its classroom doors to Five College Consortium students. Enrollees of UMass Amherst, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and Smith College are now permitted to take courses in person on the Amherst College campus.

Differences in academic calendars and the need to find transportation across the five schools have always posed challenges, but the pandemic has created new safety considerations that Five College students must consider. In light of the recent spike in Covid cases at UMass, the differing approaches that the Five Colleges take to Covid safety have become increasingly clear for students.

“I think there's more hesitancy to take a Five College course — people are a bit more cautious — because of differing restrictions at different colleges,” said Michaela Flanders ’22, a bioethics and psychology major at Mount Holyoke who’s taking an anthropology course at Amherst. “For example, at Mount Holyoke, students are kind of apprehensive about the fact that UMass is not habitually test[ing] [its] student populations.”

Mount Holyoke, Smith and Amherst require all students on campus to undergo asymptomatic testing at least twice a week; Hampshire has a similar but less intensive program. UMass is encouraging students to get Covid tests but has no testing requirements for asymptomatic students. The university reported on Thursday, however, that “the number of tests this past week more than doubled to 8,836.”

Amherst is requiring all UMass students taking classes at Amherst to be tested on a regular schedule just like Amherst students, said Kevin Kennedy, the director of strategic engagement at the Five College Consortium.

“The other campuses did not choose to do that; at Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Smith, UMass students can attend courses there,” he added. “[Students] need to be vaccinated at UMass, but they don't need to be part of the local testing regimen.”

The uptick in positive cases in the Hampshire County area increases the chances of interacting with someone with Covid, particularly in enclosed spaces such as on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) — the bus system which most Five College students use to commute. Five College students, however, did not seem too concerned about the trip.

Lily Nemirovsky ’24, a student at Mount Holyoke taking two courses in Amherst’s Russian Department, said that she’s “not too concerned” about the PVTA. “Everyone who I've noticed on the PVTA,” she said, “has followed the mask guidelines very, very well, so I'm not hugely concerned. Also, the PVTA isn't super full, so I usually have an empty seat next to me, and then social distancing is pretty reasonable.”

The PVTA requires all riders to wear a mask while waiting at bus stops or on-board PVTA vehicles. Riders are also encouraged to maintain distance with other passengers and avoid using public transportation if experiencing Covid symptoms.

Flanders reported that the PVTA “started with a less robust schedule than usual.”

“For the past couple of weeks whenever I have come to Amherst [College], I have needed to find a way to get transportation [other than taking the bus], because if not, I would have come to class and then been stuck at Amherst for two to three hours after my class before the next PVTA bus,” she said. “And of course, at Amherst, Five College students are not allowed to park anywhere on campus, so that piece has been a real struggle and definitely feels like a deterrent to Five College students.”

Due to a shortage of qualified drivers, some PVTA bus routes have been modified from standard full service, according to the UMass website. Route 39, for instance, which ran between Hampshire and Smith Colleges, has been cancelled for the Fall 2021 semester.

Despite these challenges, five college students described that their class registration process was calmer at Amherst than Mount Holyoke, even considering the hectic add-drop period.

“It was actually a lot easier than registering for classes at Mount Holyoke,” Nemirovsky said. “I thought this was normal, but I guess that Holyoke is unusually competitive with their classes. … I emailed the Amherst professors with the courses I was interested in [during the] week of [the] Add-Drop period, and both of them said it was totally easy for me to join in late, even though I hadn't registered during the initial period.”

Cam Waters ’24, a student from Mount Holyoke, agreed: “When it came to the Five College process, it was actually pretty easy. It wasn't hard at all … the classes were available.”

Official registration numbers from the Registrar are not released until November, according to Kennedy, so the exact number of Five College students taking on-campus classes and the breakdown of school, department and schedule is as of yet unknown.

If pre-pandemic numbers and trends continue, it is expected that there will be around 5,000 courses this year “taken by students going to other campuses,” he said. The exact distribution of where these students go and are from varies, but Hampshire is typically the leader in cross-college courses — upwards of 90 percent of enrolled students will take a Five College course during their undergraduate career. On the other hand, only 7 percent to 8 percent of UMass students will take an off-campus offering.

The exact landscape of course enrollments across the Five College Consortium remains unclear — as does the role Amherst plays in that ecosystem. As the new Delta variant causes an uptick in local infections, Five College students will be facing new challenges as they navigate yet another pandemic semester.