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As classes near, Maryland universities say their COVID plans are in place

Masks and vaccinations will be the rule for students at the University of Maryland, College Park, and for other schools in the state. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

As the school year approaches, colleges and universities across the state will be reopening their campuses to students, faculty and staff while implementing plans to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

The reopening plans were studied and discussed as early as last year, with announcements for on-campus guidelines and plans disseminated – and in some instances tweaked — in the spring and summer of 2021.

In April, University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman issued a vaccine mandate for all University System of Maryland schools – which comprises 11 campuses and four regional higher education centers across Maryland, serving over 170,000 students. Vaccination records are required to be submitted to each campus’s health centers.

“We’ve been living with COVID for so long now that we forget we’re still in the middle of a public health emergency. But these variants — and the increasing disease burden in young people — are reminding us again that we’re not out of the woods. And I’m convinced that the risk of doing too little to contain COVID on campus this fall is far greater than the risk of doing too much,” Perman said in his mandate address.

Students, faculty and staff who qualify are able to request medical or religious exemptions but must undergo regular biweekly on-campus COVID-19 testing, in addition to wearing masks at all times. Unvaccinated individuals will also not be permitted to live on campus, or have access to campus facilities. Students may also face cancellation of class registrations.

To encourage students to comply with the guidelines, many campuses, like the University of Maryland, College Park, offered vaccines to faculty, staff, students and their families. The campus is also holding weekly prize drawings for those students who are vaccinated.

Similar to the USM colleges and universities, McDaniel College in Westminster is also requiring students to be fully vaccinated for a return to campus. Faculty and staff are not required to get vaccinated, but over 80 percent of employees have submitted documentation of their full vaccination status.

Students must show proof of vaccination by Sept. 1, and the vaccinations are tracked much like other on-campus vaccinations, like meningitis, said Cheryl Knauer, public relations director at McDaniel.

“Those who are vaccine-exempt or who have only received their first vaccine dose upon arrival to campus will be required to undergo weekly COVID testing until fully vaccinated. Also, any residential or commuting student not fully vaccinated by the date of their arrival to campus will be required to provide documentation of a negative COVID test administered within seven days of their return,” Knauer said.

Students who arrive without proof of vaccination or COVID test will not be issued keys or parking permits, she said.

Goucher College held “an aggressive voluntary compliance program over the summer,” including weekly raffles for those who documented their vaccination status, which brought the college’s vaccination status to over 90 percent, said Kristi Yowell, associate vice president for human resources at Goucher.

For faculty and staff, vaccination against COVID-19 and compliance with Goucher’s guidelines is a condition of employment. If faculty or staff do not get vaccinated or do not submit religious or medical exemptions as required by law, they will be considered in non-compliance and terminated from their position, Yowell said.

For Goucher students, much of the same system and guidelines are in place. Frequent communications are reminding students of the deadlines. If they have not met those requirements, students face holds on their accounts, registration drops and housing.

While there have been reports of fake vaccination cards across the U.S., Maryland college officials are not concerned.

“Our student health center reports any questionable submissions to the Office of the Vice President & Dean of Students, and it is investigated. If the documentation is found to be falsified, that is a violation of our code of conduct, and that student would go through our student accountability process,” said Nicole Johnson, dean of students at Goucher.

Employees face similar disciplinary action, including and up to termination of employment at Goucher, said Yowell.

McDaniel students would also face disciplinary action, said Knauer.

The rise in cases due to the Delta variant has also shifted how campuses plan to implement mask and social distance mandates. University of Maryland, College Park, will now require all students, staff and faculty to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. All USM campuses are also requiring all staff to perform a self-health screen every day for symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to any property or class.

McDaniel is following federal guidelines and encourages those individuals who have not been vaccinated to wear masks while indoors. Goucher is requiring masks and social distancing of at least six feet.