Northeastern Officials Outline Plans for Off-Campus Housing, COVID-19 Testing

Northeastern University officials were on hand for a virtual meeting sponsored by the St. Botolph Neighborhood Association Tuesday, Aug. 11, to outline their plans for housing students at area hotels for the fall semester, as well for how the school would administer testing for COVID-19 within its community.

John Tobin, Northeastern’s vice president of city and community affairs, as well as a former Boston city councilor, said the school would lease all of the Midtown Hotel, located at 220 Huntington Ave. in Back Bay, and entire floors of Westin Copley Place, which, along with 140 units in apartment buildings it owns the master leases for, would provide off-campus housing for its students.

Kathy Spiegelman, Northeastern’s vice president and chief of campus planning and development who is overseeing off-campus housing at the Midtown and the Westin Copley, said soon after the pandemic struck, the university realized it would need to reconsider student density, especially since the school is obligated to provide housing for all freshmen and sophomores. “We wanted to keep students as close to campus as possible,” she added.

Northeastern subsequently had conversations regarding providing student housing with all of the hotels in Coley Square and some Fenway hotels, Spiegelman said, as well as local landlords.

“First, we went to talk to the Midtown because they had a development project planned for the site and [intended] on closing the hotel,” Spiegelman said, adding that the hotel has also accommodated a “small number” of Northeastern students for the past few years.

Under Northeastern’s proposal, the Midtown would provide housing for 305 students, Spiegelman said, who would be monitored by eight onsite RAs (resident advisors) and two proctors.

The Westin Copley will be home for up to 844 international students who planned to study at seven locations worldwide, Spiegelman said, but since all but one of the study-abroad programs have been cancelled, the students were given the option of coming to Boston instead via the NU Inn program.

Students will be required to wear face coverings at all times in the hotels when they aren’t in their rooms (as well on campus, both indoors and outdoors), Spiegelman added, and NuFlex – a new teaching approach that Northeastern plans to launch this fall in an effort to limit the number of students in the classroom by alternating between learning on campus in the traditional sense and remote learning – would also help limit potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Northeastern will also launch its “Protect the Pack” campaign to emphasize to students the importance of following guidelines to ensure their personal safety, as well as the safety of the community, Spiegelman said, while the school is also developing “opportunities for small groups of students for virtual social engagement.”

As for how Northeastern would monitor the behavior of its students living off-campus, Spiegelman said the university’s Public Safety Group is aware that its boundaries would extend beyond the school grounds once the fall semester starts, but that the school presently has no plans to patrol St. Botolph Street.

Tobin added that his office would answer to neighborhood concerns in regard to students living off-campus, and that the school had already received a commitment from Captain Steven Sweeney of Boston Police District 4 to help its staff work on any issues that might arise. (The Southwest Corridor, however, is under the state’s jurisdiction.)

“I anticipate we’ll be busy every weekend,” Tobin said. “My staff will be on call, and I’ll be on call…and we’ll try to nip things before they become a problem.”

In anticipating demand for student parking, Spiegelman said. “Freshmen are discouraged from bringing cars to school, but if they do they’ll be parking on campus and not at the Midtown.”

Meanwhile, David Luzzi, Northeastern’s senior vice provost for research, said the university would have Federal Drug Administration-approved labs on campus with the testing capacity for 5,000 individuals each day, as well as “surge capacity” for 8,000.

Students returning to campus would be tested three times, Luzzi said, including on their first day back, as well as again on their third and fifth days back.

“We understand the frequency of how often testing is needed and what measures need to be taken to keep the community safe,” Luzzi said, adding that any student who isn’t tested would be barred from participating in campus activities until they submit to one. “A student who misses a scheduled test will have an immediate reach-out from a health professional to check up on their physical well being.”

Northeastern is also developing an app that would link to its existing virtual Student Hub, Luzzi said, requiring every member of the university’s community to check in and report any possible symptoms of the coronavirus.

In the instance that someone from the school’s community shows symptoms, Spiegelman said they would be relocated to “wellness beds” on campus to be tested, as would others they have come into contact with.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 would continue to be tested for the virus “every five days for rest of semester to ensure early intervention and to isolate any infected individuals,” Luzzi added.

Moreover, Luzzi said the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University is leading the effort in developing a dashboard to track COVID-19 up-to-date metrics and data for the area’s colleges and universities, with the presidents of 17 schools already committed to taking part in this initiative.

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