The University of Maryland, College Park on Saturday suspended in-person classes for a week and instituted a “sequester-in-place” order as the coronavirus spreads on campus.
Classes at the state’s flagship university will be conducted online Monday through Feb. 27, according to an “urgent” announcement from Dr. Darryll J. Pines Jr., president of the university, and Dr. Spyridon S. Marinopoulos, director of the University Health Center.
The new mandate also requires students who live in campus residence halls or off-campus fraternity or sorority houses to isolate in place. It urges other off-campus students “stay at home as much as possible and limit your activities.”
It’s the second time this week the university has taken steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 following the detection on and off campus of coronavirus clusters, which they define as three or more cases in a certain area, and outbreaks, five or more cases in a defined space.
There have been an average of 29 new cases affiliated with the university every day for the past week, according to the university’s COVID-19 data. That’s more than triple the average number of daily cases reported a week ago, and appears to be driven by a spike in positive cases Thursday and Friday, when 61 and 60 cases were reported, respectively.
About 2,119 students and faculty had contracted the virus since the university began reporting test results Aug. 19, according to an analysis of available data by the school’s independent student newspaper, The Diamondback. With roughly 40,000 students and 14,000 faculty and staff, cases are reported to the school two ways: either a person is tested by the university or they get a test off campus and notify the university.
“We monitor the numbers every day and watch the data carefully,” Katie Lawson, a university spokesperson, said in a statement. “These changes are designed to prevent spread and quickly reverse the uptick in positive cases we saw this week.”
But the union representing some 3,300 employees of the university raised concerns about unaddressed issues of working conditions in a statement aimed at the University System of Maryland.
“Every day more and more people get sick at the College Park campus and yet the administration and the USM refuse to bargain with us, the workers charged with keeping our campuses safe,” Todd Holden, president of the AFSCME Local 1072, said in a statement. “We have been calling for more testing, screening, PPE, protocols, and more for months but it falls on deaf ears.”
Holden added that they’d met with the university administration Friday regarding increased coronavirus-related leave because front-line workers at the school “keep getting exposed to or sick with COVID.” He said the university didn’t address “how our members, who clean, cook and maintain dormitories, academic and administrative buildings on campus, will do their jobs with infected students in dorms throughout campus.”
In a statement, the university said it offered to begin bargaining with the union earlier than usual “with the best interests of all parties in mind” and COVID-related work conditions could come up during negotiations.
Meanwhile, the new mandate touched off debate among students online about whether the actions were necessary and what caused the infection increase.
Sarah Gagne, 20, lives in an apartment-style residence hall on campus. She had classes in-person last semester and they “felt really safe.”
“It’s definitely people doing things that are probably not reasonable to do during COVID,” Gagne, a junior hearing and speech sciences major, told The Sun.
The university said it hadn’t pinpointed a “single determining factor or location for virus spread,” thus opting for sweeping preventative measures.
Saturday’s mandates require students who live on campus to stay in their rooms and residence halls as much as possible, though they’re permitted respite for fresh air “only in the area immediately surrounding their residence” and to pick up food. On-campus recreation facilities were closed.
Caroline Pugh, 22, was frustrated by the timing of Pines’ announcement. She got the email about 10 a.m. telling her to hunker in place starting at noon. The email from Pines didn’t include any contact for questions, Pugh said, wondering whether she was allowed to leave for groceries and if she could go to her job volunteering at a hospital in Baltimore Saturday evening.
“I didn’t feel like it gave us enough time to prepare,” she said.
Gagne has been taking virus precautions seriously, having had a family member get sick, she said. She only leaves her apartment to see her boyfriend and a very small group of friends — her bubble.
“Being stuck to my own place feels very different; Before I had the freedom to go to my boyfriend’s place, and now they’re telling me I can’t,” she said.
Pines issued a statement on Twitter about his institution’s latest mitigation efforts, while encouraging students to check in on each other and to speak up if someone needs help.
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“We do not take lightly that these new measures impact everyday lives,” Pines said in a statement. “We are keenly aware of the toll this virus is taking on our collective and individual mental health.”
University officials also added Saturday another residence hall for those required to quarantine because of infection or having close contact with someone who tested positive. Available “quarantine and isolation housing” is 54% full, according to the university.
On Thursday, officials had limited student gatherings and online recreation activities to five people, regardless of the venue. Dining halls provided strictly grab-and-go meals. Coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people was instituted all university housing where clusters or outbreaks occurred.
Officials warned of repercussions as severe as suspension or expulsion for those who repeatedly balked at the restrictions, and foreshadowed further action if not for a prompt decrease in cases.
But it shouldn’t have to come to that, said Pugh, a junior who’s a pursuing a double degree in biology and German. She wants to be a doctor, and it angers her to hear friends talking about people going to parties and bars.
“When you are making a decision that serves only yourself, you’re not only risking yourself, you’re risking everyone else,” Pugh said.