Students and staff soon to arrive on the campuses of Maryland’s public colleges for the coming academic year must be tested in advance for the coronavirus, the University System of Maryland said Thursday.
Citing recent spikes in COVID-19 cases across many parts of the country, officials said anyone arriving on the campuses must provide proof of a negative test conducted within 14 days of arrival.
Those who haven’t been tested and whose arrival on campus falls within that 14-day window should follow their college’s guidance on what to do, the statement said.
“Anyone testing positive for COVID-19 prior to arrival will not be allowed on campus,” according to the statement. “These students and employees will be permitted on campus only after a required period of isolation has been met.”
The testing mandate is part of a range of measures that colleges are instituting as they try to resume operations before the coronavirus is fully under control. Schools are also adding symptom monitoring and contact tracing protocols and requiring masks and social distancing.
Joann Boughman, the Maryland system’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said campuses will test arriving students who haven’t been screened in advance. Those students are expected to stay in “a quiet phase,” mostly in their dorms, while awaiting results.
While there have been recent reports in the state of long waits for test results, Boughman said a recently conducted pilot program was able to get turnaround times of about 72 hours.
Colleges have set aside dorm and hotel space for those who would need a fuller quarantine with a positive result, she said.
Boughman said colleges have tried to keep students and their families updated on plans over the summer, answering questions about testing and safety measures, “with the underlying theme that when a student comes back to campus, we’re bringing them back to as safe an environment as possible.”
Despite the number of tests required for such a large population — in a normal year, the system’s 12 campuses and three regional centers have about 110,000 students — Boughman said the colleges have adequate supplies. If it’s more convenient, they can refer students to off-campus testing centers, as well.
Democratic state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who represents areas of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, and Patrick Moran, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3 union, applauded the testing requirement and said they had pressed for it.
“With a few precious weeks left before students return and more workers are called back to campus to provide services, AFSCME will continue to demand answers that assure our members that this is pulled off successfully, repeatedly and at scale,” Moran said in a statement.
Rosapepe said in an email that he was pushing for further measures at the University of Maryland, College Park, and other state universities, such as closing indoor dining and drinking in the campus area and strong enforcement of physical distancing rules.
The university system’s testing directive comes as colleges across the country develop and adjust plans for reopening their campuses, fighting a tight window given that many students are scheduled to arrive in mid- or late August.
Some schools have reversed course and decided to keep their campuses closed after watching coronavirus cases continuing to rise across the country. This week alone, three universities in Washington, D.C. — American, George Washington and Georgetown — joined a growing group of U.S. colleges that abandoned plans to reopen and will instead offer online-only courses for now.
In the Baltimore area, colleges generally are offering a hybrid of in-person and remote classes and have modified dorms, libraries and dining facilities to accommodate fewer students.
“The uncertainty surrounding COVID spread and impact demands that our plans be flexible enough to respond to disease risk in real time, changing as COVID conditions and safety guidelines change,” the Maryland system statement said.
Once on campus, students, staff and visitors are required to wear masks, keep 6 feet apart and follow other local guidelines on gatherings.
“Adherence to these testing, symptom monitoring, and disease mitigation protocols is essential to the safety of our USM community,” the system said, “and to our ability to resume and sustain in-person instruction this fall.”
Testing and monitoring plans vary among campuses, and in some cases remain to be finalized.
A university system spokeswoman said that positive test results will be reported to state health authorities, which will activate a contact tracing process to identify other potential cases.
Even before the new academic year has gotten underway, The New York Times reported that more than 6,300 coronavirus cases have been linked to 270 colleges across the country.
Schools are encouraging students and staff to keep attuned to any symptoms of the virus that they might develop.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for example, has developed an online symptom tracking form. Faculty, staff, and students who are approved to be on campus will be required to complete the form every day, which should take about 30 seconds, said Dinah Winnick, the school’s communications director.
For testing, UMBC will use a lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, because it has a faster turnaround time on results than many others in the region, Winnick said.
The university is trying to tamp down the number of people on site to help limit the potential spread of the virus, she said.
“Residence halls will be at less than 50% occupancy,” Winnick said, “and only 10% of courses will have an on-campus component.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this article.