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Local colleges look to rent empty hotel rooms to space out students this fall; Boston not involved in state's college re-opening planning

Northeastern University says it hopes to take over the entire Midtown Hotel and to lease floors in the Westin Copley Place to serve as dorms after eliminating on-campus triples and similar spaces and setting aside 500 campus rooms to quarantine any students who contract Covid-19.

Separately, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission told city councilors today that she and her staff have not been at all involved in state efforts to come up with guidelines for ensuring the safety of students and staffers when colleges re-open this fall, even though Boston normally becomes home to some 138,000 college students each fall.

At a hearing on college Covid-19 plans for the fall, a BPDA planner said that on Monday, the BPDA will unveil a formal process for Northeastern and other Boston colleges seeking to use hotel rooms and large blocks of apartments for "de-densification" of students.

Planner Nupoor Monani told city councilors that schools will have to detail their Covid-19 containment strategies for the new units and in many cases may have to go through a public-meeting process to discuss the plans with neighbors.

Monani said such deals could be a win for both colleges that need to find additional space for their students and the hotels, which have seen their businesses collapse. She estimated that housing 1,000 college students in hotels would create some 100 hotel jobs and inject some $12.5 million into the local economy.

Northeastern officials told councilors that although students are still making their housing choices for the fall - and that many may choose to stay at home and take classes remotely, they are looking at housing roughly 1,000 extra students off campus, in both the two Back Bay hotels and in apartment complexes where it already has "master lease" arrangements.

At the Westin, Northeastern hopes to rent entire floors, to try to minimize any mixing between students and other hotel guests.

Meanwhile, BPHC Executive Director Rita Nieves says she expects the state to release its guidelines "soon" and that she and her staff will then work closely with local colleges to ensure they are followed. Some councilors expressed surprise at this.

Councilor Lydia Edwards (North End, Charlestown, East Boston) said she is particularly concerned about students coming here from states with leaders who don't believe in science - she mentioned Florida and Texas in particular - and who may not share Bostonians' efforts to wear masks.

Northeastern officials said that all students who decide to come to Boston will be required to take a Covid-19 test on their arrival on campus and to then take tests regularly - and to fill out a daily Covid-19 symptom form.

The college is building its own testing lab, able to process 2,500 to 5,000 samples a day, and will use a test that is less invasive than the long probe typically used at testing sites in Boston, Vice President and former City Councilor John Tobin said. The school is also setting up its own contact-tracing system to ensure that people who come into contact with anybody who tests positive are themselves quarantined. Students will also be required to wear masks at all times when not in their rooms and will not be allowed to entertain visitors, officials said, adding public spaces, such as cafeterias, are being redesigned to help ensure spacing between the people who visit them.

Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents, among other areas, the student heavy Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods, said she's particularly worried about the vast numbers of students who will burst into Boston come Labor Day.

"One of the moments of greatest danger for the city, public health-wise, is the moment of influx," she said. Bok, who still teaches part time at Harvard, said that colleges are traditionally not very good at ramping up at doing large amounts of anything new at the beginning of a school year.

She added she's also concerned about students who opt out of dorms or college-supervised hotel rooms and instead seek rooms in private units, for example, across much of Mission Hill.

Tobin and other Northeastern officials said they have been meeting on a daily basis for months now to prepare for the fall, and that students not living in university-provided housing will be subject to the same testing.

After Nieves said Boston public-health officials have not been involved in any formal planning for overseeing the re-opening of colleges, Councilor Michelle Wu (at large) expressed surprise.

"It's very frustrating to hear we don't have a seat at the table," given the prominence of colleges in Boston - with not just all the students, but some 35,000 employees - she said. "We are home to the universities who are going to have to deal with the consequences" of any school-borne outbreaks.

BPDA college de-densification guidelines.

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Comments

This is actually a fairly smart idea. Many hotels near universities may have a hard time filling rooms right now. Many colleges have too crammed dorms. Seems like a great way to solve both problems with some economic activity kicked in.

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Northeastern's plan sounds solid, or as solid as can be in this situation I guess.

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Separately, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission told city councilors today that she and her staff have not been at all involved in state efforts to come up with guidelines for ensuring the safety of students and staffers when colleges re-open this fall, even though Boston normally becomes home to some 138,000 college students each fall.

Based on some other conversations on this site, a lot of people believe Charlie can do no wrong. I am not one of them.

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Follow Northeastern's lead and provide hotel rooms for foreign students.

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BU has been suspending retirement benefit contributions for its employees.

I'm sure that the colleges are getting a reasonable price for hotels now that no tourists or conferences are expected, but going out of their way to rent these spaces just seems like bad optics - particularly when Harvard/MIT have decided to keep a majority of their students away.

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The colleges want to show they are doing everything they can short of closing completely to ensure the safety of the students and faculty.

Remember, lockdowns were only suppose to be a short term fix to "flatten the curve" and give time for groups to come up with ways to go back to business without massively spreading the virus. Having extra hotel space to isolate people who are infected so they don't infect others is one way of doing that.

Had the federal government prepared for this early in the year, massive lockdowns wouldn't be needed. Had people in the American South and West listened to experts, worn masks, and avoided large gatherings, they wouldn't be looking at the current exponential rise in cases. Here in Massachusetts were people are generally doing the right thing the case numbers are remaining low.

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