The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College students were suspended after attending a party unmasked. Parents are fighting back.

Students pass the Old Chapel on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst in October 2016. (Suzanne Kreiter/Boston Globe/AP)

Three Massachusetts college students were suspended this spring after a photo posted on social media showed them attending an off-campus party unmasked, breaking the university’s covid-related policies. The families of the students have cried foul and say they will challenge the school’s decision.

After another student sent the photograph from the March gathering to school directives, the freshman female students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst were immediately moved out of campus housing and had to attend classes remotely pending a review.

After losing their cases, they were kicked out of school entirely, forfeiting the entire academic semester and $16,000 of tuition each, which the school will not refund, according to parents’ interviews with local media.

“These beautiful young ladies who are honors students have had a full academic year stripped away and their paths broken of their higher education for alleged covid violations,” one of the parents told ABC affiliate WCVB-TV.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Teresa, the mother of another suspended student who was identified by first name only, told CBS Boston.

The families of the three students have hired a lawyer and are planning to file a lawsuit against the university over the suspension, reports said.

Throughout the pandemic, campus outbreaks have prompted aggressive efforts by universities and local officials to curb the transmission, in some cases fueling tensions in college towns, cities and campuses across the country, from San Diego, the city of Athens, Ga., to several college campuses in Virginia.

Other universities implemented stringent rules to prevent such outbreaks.

The university said the students were repeatedly warned about campus regulations and the possible sanctions — including suspension — they would face if they failed to comply.

“Expectations regarding students’ responsibility to follow public health protocols, and the consequences for failing to do so, were clearly communicated to students before and throughout the spring semester, and students were updated regularly as conditions changed,” the school said in a written statement to The Washington Post.

The university also declined to share more details, saying it is not allowed to comment on particular student cases, but added that its regulations were driven by public health concerns.

Sanctions for violating covid restrictions are determined “based on the severity of the infraction,” the university said, adding that more than 10 students have been suspended for attending large or small parties on the weekend of March 6-7, when the campus had implemented “high-risk” protocols because of a surge in covid-19 cases in February.

Of the more than 1,000 cases of violations this spring period, no student was suspended for merely not wearing a mask, the university said.

The controversy over the students’ suspension comes following months of covid-related turmoil in the university, which moved school officials to change rules and restrictions accordingly.

Following the February surge, university officials told students — including the 5,000 living on campus and an estimated 8,000 at off-campus residences, they needed to “self-sequester.”

In-person classes were suspended and students were told not to leave their dorm rooms or homes “except to get meals,” adding that they were required to take coronavirus tests twice a week.

Students were also forbidden to travel from campus or outside the surrounding area.

Violations to these covid safety protocols could lead to sanctions including “suspension" and/or “removal” from campus housing, a February statement said, adding there were 70 cases of violations under review.

Later that month, Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a statement that their efforts to curb the spread of the virus were effective, as positivity rates had fallen considerably.

As a result, many campus activities were able to resume, including in-person classes, but LaBanc underlined that the strict restrictions and guidelines for students remained in place.

On March 8, LaBanc issued a statement saying the local police department was called to disperse a crowd of about 200 students who had gathered in “egregious” violation of university policy.

The crowd of mostly unmasked individuals was dispersed and citations were issued to the hosts.

“This selfish and disrespectful attitude contributes to the spread of the virus and puts all of us at risk,” LaBanc wrote, adding that the students who had attended or hosted the party would be issued interim suspensions, and those who lived on campus would be required to move out.

“I regret this is where we have arrived, but the university must act to support the needs and wants of the greater student body and the larger community,” the statement said.

The outraged parents have claimed a double standard was being applied by the university, as there had been other instances in which students violated the same covid rules in place without being subject to the same punishment.

In April, members of the university’s hockey team held a celebration after it won the NCAA championship, with some students who appeared to not be wearing masks.

In a written statement, the university told The Post that it was “regrettable” that U-Mass. hockey players appeared unmasked, but argued this gathering took place later in the semester when covid-19 positivity rates were “much lower” and the university protocols had been loosened.

Most of the supporters gathered on campus were wearing masks, the university added.

State Sen. Barry Finegold (D) called the sanction “huge” in relation to the alleged rule violation, WCVB reported.

“University of Massachusetts Amherst, by suspending them, that is a cost to these families of $16,000. That is a huge, hefty penalty for not wearing a mask,” he said.

Read more:

Rising coronavirus cases at U-Va., VMI and other Virginia colleges spark worry, lead to changes

U-Va. temporarily bans in-person gatherings, unveils other restrictions as virus cases rise

Lessons from the pandemic fall: Infections are rare in classrooms, not off campus

UNC-Chapel Hill pivots to remote teaching after coronavirus spreads among students during first week of class

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.