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Cambridge and Boston Residents Ambivalent about Harvard Students Returning to On- and Off-Campus Housing

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As a limited number of students move into Harvard's dorms and others occupy apartments near campus, residents of the Greater Boston area are voicing concerns about the student population’s impact on their own health and safety.

Several colleges across the country have reported high numbers of coronavirus cases after welcoming students back to campus. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sent most of its students home after reporting hundreds of positive tests, and multiple other schools have reported case counts over 1,000.

In July, Harvard announced it would open its dorms to the Class of 2024 and allow certain upperclassmen who petition to return for the fall semester. The FAS projected only 25 percent of the undergraduate population will live on campus for the fall, after setting a 40 percent limit.

In addition to the 25 percent returning to campus, other undergraduates are returning to Cambridge and Allston to live off-campus.

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Cambridge City Councilor Marc C. McGovern said that the mass return of college students into the Greater Boston area — not just Harvard undergraduates — concerns him. He also said that although students may feel “invincible,” they still bear a responsibility for preventing an outbreak in the city.

“I know what it was like when I was, you know, 20 years old and in college and I didn't always exactly follow rules, I didn't always do the smart thing,” McGovern said. “Part of college is socializing and relationships, and so it's concerning.”

“Our college students are like everybody else,” he added. “There are plenty of college graduates and people my age that aren't taking it as seriously as they should. I'm sure that some college students will take it seriously and I'm sure some of them won’t.”

Cambridge resident David E. Sullivan said he has “mixed feelings” about students returning. On one hand, he said, the abundance of students contributes to the vitality of the city, but he is also worried about the level of adherence to public health policies, especially among the freshman class — which comprises the bulk of students returning to campus.

“I think everyone, probably, including the students themselves are very worried about, you know, spreading coronavirus,” he said. “Above all, don't party. I think a lot of students who are coming back are gonna be freshmen, and I think a lot of their attitude is going to be ‘hey, what's the point of going to college if I can't go to a party?”

Other residents have concerns specifically about the students living off-campus.

Anthony P. D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, said he hoped Boston-area universities, including Harvard, would formulate health and safety plans that account for students living both on-campus and off.

“I liked the fact that testing seems to be consistent across both on-campus and off and that's important,” he said. “I would have liked to have seen more colleges and universities provide self-isolation and quarantine facilities to off-campus students as well, instead of just saying, ‘Hey, you need to go home, or you can self-quarantine or isolate in your off-campus apartment with your other roommates.”

“That was a little bit too loosey goosey,” D’Isidoro added.

D’Isidoro also said Harvard’s residential life might demand different planning than other colleges with higher proportions of students living off-campus.

“Most of the undergrads at Harvard do stay on-campus, do live on-campus, so a little bit different than some of the others like BU and BC that tend to have a lot of undergrads living off-campus,” he said.

Not all local residents, however, are as worried. Eugenia B. Schraa ’04 — a Cambridge resident — said that she believes returning students understand the “serious” necessity of public health guidelines, and will be a much needed “boon” for the city.

“It's really not about people living in cities that’s dangerous, it's really about the practices, and the habits and the care that they take to prevent the disease,” Schraa said.

D’Isidoro said overall he thinks the University is making a serious effort to ensure off-campus students are held to similar health and safety standards.

“So far, so good, you know. Again, we're holding our breaths — we're encouraged that the colleges and universities are taking it very seriously with all students not just on-campus but off-campus,” D’Isidoro said. “They seem to be holding those students to the same protocols, the same accountability, and there’s a lot to be lost if students act in a bad way in the community.”

University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke wrote in an emailed statement that the University has consistently updated state and local leaders on its plans for the fall semester and implemented wide-scale testing, ensuring its plan is guided by “principles of health, safety, education and research.”

“A critical piece of the University’s plan is frequent COVID-19 screening through viral testing, beginning in June, for the entirety of the limited population of individuals authorized to be on campus,” O’Rourke wrote. “Additionally, as this limited number of students returned to campus last week, we also launched a public-facing dashboard, which is updated daily with the latest testing data and results as part of our continued commitment to awareness and transparency.”

Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, said businesses always think of the beginning of the semester as “New Year’s,” and that the reality of a less busy fall is “heartbreaking.”

“Just a completely different vibe,” she said. “So that's certainly disturbing and we understand it and we know that the universities are doing the right thing by thoughtfully and slowly welcoming students back, and keeping them on campus once they get here to the extent that that’s possible.”

As far as students not taking proper precautions, she added that Cambridge residents are not afraid to tell someone off for flouting social distancing rules.

“Even if kids come from other sections of the country that do not have as strict guidelines, I believe they will very quickly assimilate because they will be embarrassed not to,” she added. “As a Cambridge resident, and I’ve witnessed it myself, there's very few people who have any compunction about saying ‘hey, you're getting too close,’ or ‘hey, where's your mask?’ ”

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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