UMass Amherst Parents Say School Suspended Students Over Maskless Off-Campus Photo

The parents of three University of Massachusetts Amherst students who were blocked from online classes over an outdoor and maskless off-campus photo slammed the school ruling as "devastating."

UMass Amherst school administrators enacted a zero-tolerance, "high risk" COVID-19 pandemic stance in February that led to three female freshmen being cut off from online classes and having their $16,000 in tuition voided for the entire semester. The suspended students' parents on Friday blasted the school's decision, which was made after someone handed administrators a photo that showed the freshman friends posing outside without masks at an off-campus event.

The Andover, Massachusetts, parents told WBZ-TV their kids lost all their semester credits and were not allowed to take their finals. UMass Amherst officials defended the move to keep the freshmen girls' $16,000 tuition and semester credits, issuing a statement that said students were warned repeatedly to "self-sequester" and of the harsh consequences should they be seen inside or outside without facial coverings. Recently updated CDC pandemic guidelines have dropped outdoor mask requirements entirely, citing numerous studies and public health experts who deemed such activity as safe.

"That negates this whole semester $16,000 of money and they have to reapply for next semester. But they missed housing registration," said Scott, a father of one of the freshman girls in the maskless outdoor photo. "She and two others attended a gathering off-campus and were immediately removed from housing and suspended."

UMass completely banned outdoor exercise and implemented strict stay-at-home orders in February, prompting many critics to question the science of outdoor mask-wearing. In early March, around 200 UMass-Amherst students were suspended following a large party which administrators said "pose[d] an immediate health risk to other residents" on campus.

The three suspended students in the photo must also re-apply to the school for the upcoming fall semester and lost all credits from this spring semester, the parents said.

"There was a photo sent to the administration of these girls outside off campus on a Saturday. This is why they lost a whole semester of their schooling," said Scott's wife, Kristin, in a Friday interview with the CBS Boston TV station.

Teresa and R.J., parents of a second student in the photograph, said UMass Amherst officials are enforcing such mask violation suspensions in an unfair manner, noting viral videos that showed the school's hockey team engaging in raucous celebrations wearing no masks.

Signs around the college town read: "You are in a mask required zone per the Amherst Board of Health."

"[Our daughter] was valedictorian and class president of her high school. She did everything right," R.J. told the station.

In response to criticism this week, UMass Amherst issued the following statement:

"Students received a number of public health messages this semester that emphasized the importance of following public health protocols and the consequences for not complying, and those messages were also shared on UMass social media channels."

In February, the school began enforcing "high-risk" COVID-19 precautions due to a surge in cases on-campus and in the Amherst area. The school warned students of suspension should they break the rules made "in consultation with the Commonwealth's Department of Public Health."

The February 7 UMass Amherst letter to the community read: "All students, whether residing in campus residences halls or in off-campus housing in the surrounding area, are directed to self-sequester. Self-sequestration means that students must stay in their residences, both on and off campus, except to get meals, undergo twice-weekly COVID testing, or to attend medical appointments...Failure to comply with these directives is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and will result in disciplinary action, which may include removal from residence halls and/or suspension. Also, all campus athletic competitions and practices are cancelled."

Last week, Massachusetts GOP Governor Charlie Baker dropped the outdoor mask requirement across the commonwealth.

Newsweek reached out to UMass Amherst officials for additional response Saturday afternoon.

umass amherst mask students suspended
The parents of three University of Massachusetts Amherst freshman students who were blocked from online classes over a maskless off-campus photo, said the school's ruling has been "devastating." Screenshot: YouTube | CBS Boston