3 USM schools moving to remote learning after coronavirus surge

(Flickr/Javcon117*/"Frostburg State University Arch Entryway"/CC by 2.0/cropped and resized)

Frostburg State University is among three USM campuses that announced  this week that they are moving to virtual learning after a semester of hybrid instruction. (Flickr/Javcon117*/”Frostburg State University Arch Entryway”/CC by 2.0/cropped and resized)

Just two weeks out from Thanksgiving, after which most University System of Maryland schools were planning to end their semesters or return to online-only education, three universities in the system have preemptively pivoted to virtual learning after a semester of hybrid schooling.

Both Frostburg State University and Bowie State University announced the pivot on Wednesday, citing a Nov. 10 press conference in which Gov. Larry Hogan tightened COVID-19 restrictions and warned that the state’s COVID-19 numbers had entered “the danger zone.” Both schools moved to virtual learning that Thursday. 

The University of Maryland, College Park announced on Friday that undergraduate classes, “with only a few approved exceptions” would move online the following Monday. Graduate classes with a face-to-face component will continue to meet. 

Frostburg’s announcement follows a massive uptick in coronavirus cases in Allegany County, where the school is located. Currently, Allegany County has 73.2 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate of any Maryland county, according to Covid Act Now. 

The university’s Brady Health Center is currently monitoring 40 active cases in the Frostburg campus community, a slight decrease from earlier in the week, according to university spokesperson Liz Medcalf.

Previously, Frostburg classes temporarily pivoted online for a week, from late October into early November.

Prior to moving online, 70% of Frostburg’s courses this semester had an in-person element. Students won’t miss out on much in-person instruction, however; the school started this fall semester earlier than usual in anticipation of a COVID-19 spike, meaning that the final day of classes will be Nov. 18, with final exams concluding the following week. 

Students will be allowed to remain in their residence halls through the end of the semester, as planned, and food service will continue to be offered, although dining will switch to grab-and-go rather than dine-in.

In addition to the governor’s press conference on Tuesday, the university’s decision to move to online instruction was influenced by its own indicators. Frostburg monitors certain coronavirus-related data points, such as active cases, the capacity of the university’s health center and the existence of clusters, on a daily basis. 

“Some of our own indicators were going up, Allegany County’s numbers were going up significantly,” Medcalf said. “The governor’s advice was definitely a strong factor, but we were not told to go online. The numbers that we (looked) at made us feel like that was something we wanted to do.”

Bowie is in Prince George’s County, which had been a major COVID-19 hotspot in Maryland in the spring. Like most Maryland counties, Prince George’s is experiencing an increase in cases, and County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced increased restrictions on gatherings, restaurant capacities, masks and more earlier this week.

Recent Bowie COVID-19 data shows that, during the period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 8, the university administered 626 tests and reported eight positive tests, including an unknown number of self-reports.

Unlike Frostburg, Bowie’s semester will continue into December. However, the school had already planned to be fully online following Thanksgiving break. Students will be allowed to remain in their residence halls until Nov. 25, when they would have moved out anyway, and food service will also continue. 

UMCP, also located in Prince George’s County, will allow residence halls to continue operations. Like at Frostburg, campus dining services will follow a carry-out-only model.

UMCP had already adjusted its schedule once before, announcing early in November that it would move the majority of courses to a fully online model following Thanksgiving break. The university, which saw 16 new cases over the week of Nov. 1 out of over 2,000 tests, cited Hogan’s press conference from earlier in the week, as well as the increased restrictions on the county level, as the main factors in its decision to pivot even earlier than initially planned.

Currently, 15% of the school’s undergraduate courses contain an in-person component, almost all of which will move online starting next week. The announcement also noted that library reopening measures will be scaled back, though approved research activity will be allowed to continue.

“These measures are being taken in the best interest of the health and well-being of our campus community,” according to the announcement, which was signed by university President Daryll J. Pines and Sacared Bodison, the interim director of the University Health Center.

Other Maryland universities may also end up pivoting to online learning in the time between now and Thanksgiving. USM Chancellor Jay Perman said in a Board of Regents meeting Friday that he had spoken with the universities’ leadership teams about the possibility of shifting back to online learning sooner rather than later.

“I stressed that we must be ready, fully ready, for a possible pivot to earlier online-only instruction and student move-outs,” he said of the conversation. “We would need to accomplish this transition, should it come, quickly and safely. And as we prepare for this possibility, we have several things working in our favor, not the least of which, I would point out, is the fact that we have far fewer students on campus in the first place to return home.”

Some universities, such as the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, had already planned to go online after Thanksgiving, while others, such as Salisbury University, are sticking to original plans to return to campus after the holiday.

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