Off-Campus Students Living in Amherst Note More Freedom But Higher Risk of Contracting Covid-19

Many first-years and sophomores who lived on campus in the fall 2020 semester left the college bubble unimpressed. Instead of returning  to campus in the spring, about 70 students opted  to live in Amherst, but this time off-campus. 

Those off-campus students report feeling freer outside of the bubble but acknowledge that there’s a greater risk of contracting Covid-19, even with the once-weekly Covid-19 tests that are offered by the college.  

A high number of Covid-19 cases continue to prevail around the country, and the Amherst community remains vulnerable. In the town of Amherst, 2.19 percent of the population tested positive for Covid-19 in the past 14 days, compared to 0.13 percent of positive tests collected at the college. The risk of exposure to Covid-19 intensified for residents in February, when over 430 Covid-19 cases emerged at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As a result, the many Amherst students living in off-campus apartments face heightened vulnerability to Covid-19, which has manifested in a high number of positive cases. 

About 70 enrolled students have identified themselves as living in the Amherst community, John Carter, the chief of police and director of public safety, said. “Of those that tested through our Covid-19 Testing Center, which is offered to those students but is also their choice as to whether to participate or not, there were 15 positive tests during January, all connected to one another. 8 additional persons have tested positive since the start of this semester,” he added.

Many students living in the surrounding area noted the increased risks of living off campus but appreciated the additional freedoms compared to the college bubble. John Fitzhenry ’24 lives in an off-campus apartment near UMass with four other Amherst students. “It’s been a lot more of a college feel where I’m really much more independent and have more input in my own decisions,” he said. He’s enjoyed “meeting Amherst students since there’s such a collective here who are living off-campus.” However, he’s “interacted with people who had previously] tested positive,” noting that, “The bright side is [that] I showed up after everyone had been through quarantine.” 

Sierra Donovan ’23 similarly appreciates the increased normalcy of living off campus rather than in the bubble. But, the greater personal freedom she gained from no longer facing Covid-19 safety restrictions came at a cost: “My three roommates and I all got Covid-19,” she said. “And I would say about 10 to 15 of my friends had it.” 

While Donovan only interacts with Amherst students, she recognizes that she’s “exposed to so many more people, just from being in the town. I think being on campus, I definitely would not have gotten it because the exposure is probably just much less.” 

Leah Folpe ’23 is living in the Amherst area and working for two businesses, Insomnia Cookies and Domino’s. She experienced the repercussions of the UMass Covid case spike while working. “We had a full-on Covid scare where one of the other drivers called me and said he’d just tested positive for coronavirus,” she said. 

Folpe noted that outside of campus, Amherst residents are treating the pandemic differently than the college. “I definitely think it’s different being a worker, especially in food service, instead of being on campus. At Amherst College people are so aware of the pandemic, but outside of there it’s kind of unclear what’s going on. At Domino’s, a lot of my coworkers weren’t sure where they could get tested after the Covid-scare,” she added. “Everybody seems to have a different idea of what the best policies are. Even the Massachusetts Covid team, I’ve gotten like three different calls from them and they all had different recommendations on how long I should quarantine and how long I needed to wait after exposure to get tested.”

An anonymous sophomore, and member of the lacrosse team, also caught Covid-19 while living with a few of her classmates. “I got it the first week I moved into our house, and because everyone moved in that week, we’re assuming somebody brought it from home so we had to go into lockdown for two weeks.” Even though, “It wasn’t fun,” she feels “happier where I am and feel like I have a lot more freedom just to be a normal college student.” 

“I definitely prefer being on campus when times are normal,” Donovan said. “But if the Covid-19 regulations are the same as this semester in the fall, I would still prefer to live off-campus.”

Theo Hamilton ’23 contributed reporting to this article.