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Md. educators grappling with how to reopen campuses

7-28-16 BALTIMORE, MD- Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC seen here on Capmus for a Q+A and story about the 50th anniversary of the University. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Students on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Officials are trying to determine how to allow students back into dormitories, among other challenges. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

University administrators across Maryland are grappling with what college life will look like for students this fall as they juggle how to limit class sizes and residence halls to prevent COVID-19 spread.

The University System of Maryland, which oversees 12 institutions including the University of Maryland, College Park, Towson University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, plans to resume some in-person instruction this fall. Officials are also exploring possible summer pilot programs, allowing some students on campus if circumstances permit.

To transition back to normal campus activities in Maryland, universities will need to comply with CDC and federal government rules as well as state reopening guidelines released by Gov. Larry Hogan last month.

Reopening campuses will likely require measures to ensure available protective gear and testing and reductions in class sizes to minimize density and spread.

Last month, USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman announced a USM Return to Campus Advisory Group consisting of university leaders tasked with developing a return plan, including several USM senior staff members and university presidents, among them incoming University of Maryland, College Park President Darryll Pines.

The group will determine what type of living and learning arrangements can exist while ensuring COVID-19 testing, social distancing and building cleaning plans are available at all institutions. The group hast yet to announce specifics.

“It’s a big list and the whole campus is engaged in this because we’d all like to see our students come back to campus in the fall,” said Lynne Schaefer, vice president for finance and administration at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of Perman’s task force.

Morgan State University, which is not a part of the USM system, announced this week that it planned to reopen its campus this fall with a mix of in-person and remote learning.

For residential campuses like UMBC, where students live in close quarters, resolving how to prevent student spread and promote social distancing is particularly challenging.

“At this point it seems highly likely that we wouldn’t be able to bring all students back into the residence halls in the fall,” Schaefer said.

STEM courses and performing arts programs, which often require specialized equipment, also pose problems. This semester, some UMBC biology instructors sent lab kits to students, while other courses made use of tools on platforms like Blackboard and WebEx, Schaefer said.

“I want to make clear that the University System is planning to resume at least some in-person teaching and learning this fall, though our delivery of instruction will include a variety of approaches, both online and face-to-face,” USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman said  Monday. “Of course, our primary consideration as we undertake this planning is the health and safety of the USM’s students, faculty, and staff, as well as our university neighbors.”

But some professors have their doubts.

Continuing online education is a “responsible and temporary measure” to prevent death, said Jeffrey Herf, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Although many universities and health organizations, including the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are testing possible vaccines for the virus, a marketable option is at least 12 to 18 months down the road.

If universities return to in-person teaching this fall, they create opportunities for the disease to spread to faculty members, many of whom are over 60 years old — within the projected at-risk population — Herf added.

“This is an ideal method to spread the virus, prolong and deepen a second wave and ensure that the economic depression becomes deeper and more catastrophic than it already is,” Herf said. “A semester —  two — of online education is not ideal but it is not the end of higher education.”

Like the USM system, universities nationwide are questioning the implications of a campus reopening.

California State University, which oversees 23 campuses, announced Tuesday that it would cancel in-person instruction for the fall semester, making it the first U.S. university system to announce it was going almost exclusively with online education plans — although exceptions will be made for science labs or nursing programs if permitted.

“We understand that everybody really wants to know, and, in many cases, people need to know,” said Schaefer. “We’re working as fast as we can trying to solve all of these issues, just as other campuses across the country are trying to do that.”

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