University strengthens ties to Framingham

Due to COVID-19, FSU and the City of Framingham are redoubling efforts to improve communication and increase collaboration, according to both FSU administrators and City officials.

The City of Framingham is in the “yellow zone” for COVID-19 as of Nov. 11 and considered a high-risk area, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Yellow means the City has fewer than or equal to 10 average daily incidences of COVID-19 per 100,000 people or a fewer than or equal to a 4% positive rate of COVID-19, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The City of Framingham currently has 23.1 average daily incidences of COVID-19 per 100,000 people with a 3.24% positivity rate, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Yvonne Spicer, mayor of the City of Framingham, said Framingham is seeing high numbers again “largely due to gatherings.”

She said the City has “outreach workers who are moving throughout our community handing out masks, hand sanitizer, giving information in multiple languages – Spanish, Portuguese, and English – and we’re trying to do everything to keep our community informed – provide resources wherever possible to help them protect themselves.”

Spicer added the City is “very fortunate” to have FSU. “We are in this together, and we are a partnership. Our young people who are attending Framingham State are an integral part of our community.”

She said she believes it is “critically important that our young people understand” gatherings lead to rises in COVID-19 cases. 

“You’re not only protecting yourself, but perhaps you’re saving somebody else’s life,” Spicer added.

According to the Framingham State website, FSU has had nine students test positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks after four weeks of having only one positive case. 

FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said the University is working directly with the City in two ways – through the Health Center and the Framingham State University Police Department (FSUPD).

Brad Medeiros, chief of FSUPD, said the University Police and the Framingham Police Department have an “excellent working relationship” that started in 1996. 

He said the departments worked together to develop this relationship and wanted officers on both sides to “know each other on a first-name basis.”

Medeiros added the Framingham Police Department is large in comparison to the 17 officers in the FSUPD. In order to achieve this relationship, officers from both departments attend an annual program together involving training for CPR, mental-health wellness – how to respond to autism calls – defensive tactics, and active-shooter scenarios on campus.

He said the FSUPD also has access to the City’s detective division to bring in expertise on a variety of situations such as sexual assault cases.

Medeiros said concerning the pandemic, the FSUPD learned all of the Framingham Police Department’s COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines such as how to respond to certain medical calls or gatherings should FSUPD officers be called to assist off campus. 

Medical calls protocol had to change for the FSUPD, and now it mirrors that of the City Police’s protocol because of COVID-19, according to Medeiros. When a medical call is made, the phone operator will ask a series of questions that will determine the police’s plan of action.

He said the circumstances of the situation, such as whether it is an emergency, will determine if the police will put on personal protective equipment or if the fire department will be called.

He said in terms of off-campus gatherings, if City Police are called to respond to a gathering they believe involves FSU students, University Police will be called and the situation will be resolved through the University’s Code of Conduct. 

Medeiros added the City Police are also partnered with the Framingham Board of Health. When a gathering occurs, officers will write up their observations in a report. If it is determined the gathering is a COVID-19 violation, they will submit this report to the Framingham Board of Health. 

The street address of the gathering will be given to the Framingham Board of Health, but not the names of those in attendance, according to Medeiros.

He said the Framingham Board of Health will then follow up on the report and determine whether a fine should be issued. 

Medeiros added calls about FSU student gatherings so far this year have “resulted in immediate compliance” once City Police arrived.

He said once the City of Framingham selects a new chief of police, he hopes to sit down with them “and review how things have been done in the past” to ensure a “positive, effective working relationship that not only benefits the University, but the City also.”

[Editor’s Note: Lester Baker was appointed the new City of Framingham chief of police Nov. 5, according to the City’s website.]

Cevallos said the University holds a meeting with FSU administrators and City of Framingham residents who live in the surrounding area twice a year – once a semester. 

These neighbors can raise any concerns they may have regarding the University and its students, according to Cevallos.

Medeiros said FSUPD officers and City Police officers attend these meetings, and if needed, the jurisdiction of these concerns is determined there.

Cevallos said Ann McDonald, chief of staff, general counsel, and secretary to the Board of Trustees, coordinates the meetings. The neighbors receive informational emails as well as the University’s Campus Currents in case they want to participate in any on-campus events. 

According to Cevallos, this semester’s meeting was held Sept. 21, and there were no complaints or concerns. 

He said the “biggest concern” the neighbors had last year was how noisy the McCarthy Center air conditioning unit was, so the University held “three or four meetings about that particular issue,” which has now been resolved. 

Some City residents near FSU said they had concerns regarding students in their neighborhoods.

A Vernon Street resident, who identified herself as Ilene, said she noticed “some noisy nights” coming from off-campus student housing located on her street.

She said the events were “nothing major” and hopes the students are “keeping it to a crowd of five.” 

In an email, Vernon Street resident Henry Field said he and other Vernon Street residents have had problems in recent years with student housing regarding partying, trash, and “property neglect.”

He said University Police are often called, “but previously, they have taken the position that off campus is for City Police, not FSU police, even though only their students are involved.

“This seems counterproductive, since students are more likely to be responsive to FSU authorities, who can terminate their tenure at the college or otherwise directly affect their pursuits,” Field added. “The City Police can only arrest, which leaves a criminal record, and they are reluctant to create this.”

Field said, “The administration should tell the FSU Police Department to respond to any such problems along Vernon Street, as well as other near-campus areas with 100% student renters.”

Medeiros responded in an email. He said in the past Vernon Street resident concerns were addressed and resolved. 

Medeiros said, “If there is a situation that currently exists that is causing a problem in the Vernon Street neighborhood involving University students, the University Police, Office of Code of Conduct, will always assist the Framingham Police with trying to resolve the situation within legal guidelines.

“Ultimately the Vernon Street area is primarily the jurisdiction of the City of Framingham Police,” he added. “We will assist whenever we are called.”

Many residents said they were largely unconcerned about the risk of the FSU student body spreading COVID-19 to them.

Church Street resident Susi Leeming said she hasn’t had any issues with students. 

“I feel the students are really respectful,” Leeming said. She added when she does see students walking around, they are wearing masks.

Heather Gray, also a Church Street resident, said she has lived there for three years and has had no issues with partying in the area, “and that hasn’t changed this year.”

Regarding students who walk past her home on State Street, Ashley Walch said,  “As far as masks go, I’ve never seen anyone not wearing masks.”

She added, “It’s been quieter than last fall,” and she is “happy to be neighbors with the school and the students.”

In an email, Richelle Harrod, a Church Street resident for the past 17 years, said she and her family have been “so impressed with the efforts everyone is making to have a safe year.

“We want you here,” she added. “We want everyone to have the best time possible.”

Ilene Hofrenning, director of health services, said the Health Center works “closely with the Board of Health.”

Hofrenning said last spring, when students were sent home, the Health Center wasn’t busy, so “two of us volunteered to do case investigation and contact tracing for the City of Framingham because their cases were surging.”

She said as a result, the Health Center’s relationship with the Framingham Board of Health has “strengthened,” and Health Center staff became familiar with the process of case investigation, contact tracing, what questions to ask, and the best instructions, information, and resources to provide.

“Plus, it gave us access to MAVEN, which is the Stanford Massachusetts Virologic Epidemiologic Network,” Hofrenning added. “All COVID testing is in that network.”

She said the Health Center set up a system with the Framingham Board of Health regarding how the University should handle any cases that may arise during the academic year. Through the system, the University is informed of anyone who tests positive off campus who may be on campus or whose contacts are. 

“I feel lucky that we have great people to work with who are really collaborative, helpful, and open to us working with them, and also assisting us as we need it,” she added.

Hofrenning said students who live in off-campus housing do not get tested unless they are on campus for class, organizations, or sports.

Students in off-campus housing who are in isolation or quarantine are included in the data provided each week by the University, according to Hofrenning.

In instances when students are quarantined in off-campus housing, the University will follow up to ensure they have any essentials such as food and toiletries, she said.

Hofrenning added students can contact Kay Kastner, coordinator of student support initiatives, should they need further assistance. 

Salem End Road resident Alyssa Cafarelli, a junior early education and psychology major, said she and her roommates had a four-week quarantine in which they were tested five times, and each time, another roommate tested positive – restarting their quarantine. 

Cafarelli said, “The quarantine kept getting extended and mentally, that was one of the hardest things I had to go through.”

Four of her six roommates tested positive, she said. The tests were administered on campus outside the Health Center. 

Cafarelli said despite COVID-19 being a “very low time” in her life, she is thankful she could become closer to her best friend, Jackie Hill, and is also grateful for Laura Rusk, one of FSU’s athletic trainers, who contacted her daily to check in.

One of Cafarelli’s roommates, Jessica Morgan, a senior criminology major, said the Health Center informed them “who had tested positive and that it would be best if we went home instead of staying in the apartment together.”

She added, “They asked us if we were OK. No, we were not.

“We were dealing with a lot, and that was the last I had heard from Framingham. We felt like they left us high and dry,” Morgan said. “However, I am an athlete, so the athletic department did seem to care about us more. 

“This whole experience was mentally taxing,” she added. “COVID is real, and it is scary. All I could hope for was that I didn’t pass it along to my family. I was relieved to find out I didn’t.”

Morgan said as an off-campus student, she is “outcasted,” and the University treats on-campus students as though they are “more important than us.

“Just because we are off-campus does not mean that COVID is less likely to impact us,” she added.

“The University did not help us at all when it came to basic needs,” Morgan said.

Worcester Road resident Rachel Spivey, a junior political science major, said the University did not provide them with information soon enough. 

She said some people had already signed their apartment leases, only to find out how few in-person classes were being held. 

Spivey added she and her friends did not know what the testing protocol was going to be, and did not know if they were going to be tested. She said this was not clear until almost “a month and a half” into the semester.

She added it would have been more efficient “if they had held a Zoom meeting or something and said, ‘If you’re an off-campus student who’s living in the Framingham area, come to this informational event. We’re going to be talking about what it means for you to be a commuter student who’s living in the area’ – stuff like that.”

Spivey said she and her friends were unsure if they should get an apartment, and a meeting such as the one she described might have influenced her decision.