Towson University announced Saturday that it is switching to all online classes for the first week of the fall semester after discovering a significant number of new coronavirus cases on campus this week.
Out of 627 tests conducted Wednesday and Thursday by the University Health Center, 55 came back positive on Saturday, university officials said.
Students and staff were notified by email Saturday afternoon.
The university would not make any administrators available for an interview, but President Kim Schatzel said in a statement that the decision represented the university’s “baseline” strategy working as planned.
“We will continue to follow data, and the guidance of local, state and federal best practices, for the safety of the community,” Schatzel said.
The fall semester begins Monday, and classes will be conducted “in a remote modality,” according to the campus-wide email.
Like some local colleges and universities, Towson had planned to have a mix of in-person and online classes this fall. Others including Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College decided early to do remote learning for the fall.
The start of Towson’s semester was moved up a week, to Aug. 24, and all classes after Thanksgiving break are scheduled to be held online.
Some students and staff have been skeptical about the university’s ability to enforce safety measures. They’ve said the university is putting students at risk — and some even predicted the campus would have to shut down in two weeks.
“Nobody expects that this is going to go well,” said Brittni Ballard, a learning technologies librarian at the university’s Albert S. Cook Library, before the one-week shutdown was announced. “But nobody wants to push back.”
Towson joins a growing list of schools that transitioned to online classes due to outbreaks among students, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame.
Morgan Olencz, a Towson senior who lives off campus, said she was “not surprised whatsoever” at the university’s decision after she heard about students, including many of her friends, drinking at bars in downtown Towson last weekend.
“It’s not shocking to me at all,” she said.
The 55 positive results out of 627 tests conducted amounts to a positivity rate of 8.77%, well above public health guidelines that call for positivity rates of 5% or less before easing coronavirus restrictions.
Towson officials, however, pointed to a two-week postivity rate of 1.63% for campus testing.
The statewide positivity rate is 3.09% for the last seven days, as calculated by the state, and 4.3% for the last seven days, as calculated by Johns Hopkins University, which uses a different methodology.
Towson put measures in place in hopes of limiting the potential for outbreaks on campus. Before students were allowed to return, they were required to show they tested negative for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, within the past 10 days.
On-campus housing was limited to about 3,500 students — about half of its capacity prior to the pandemic.
The university, which enrolled about 23,000 students last year, launched a campus coronavirus dashboard on Thursday to track the number of positive cases among students. The university said it plans to update the dashboard weekly on Thursdays, so the latest round of testing data that triggered the one-week move to online classes was not posted as of Saturday evening.
Staff and faculty, even those working remotely, are required to report their symptoms every morning to their supervisor.
The university also reserved a residence hall in the Glen complex to house students living on campus who test positive for COVID-19 and need to isolate.
About 85% of classes are being taught remotely, and the university purchased about 30,000 signs to mark seats for adequate social distancing, classroom capacity and directional signs to guide the flow of foot traffic.
Yet some staff and faculty have questioned how effective signs will be to ensure students adhere to social-distancing guidelines and enforce the university’s mandatory mask rule.
“When the library was open during spring break in March, we observed numerous instances of students violating social distancing guidelines within this space,” reads a letter from Cook librarians addressed to Provost Melanie Perreault. “We have no reason to believe this behavior would be any different this fall.”
“They may be trying a softer approach — lots of digital posters and paper signs,” said Daniel Mydlack, chair of Towson’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit that advocates for the interests of faculty members.
Mydlack said there needs to be “some kind of immediate response” from the university if students or staff ignore safety precautions.
AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the largest union for state workers and university employees, has been trying to negotiate safer working conditions during the pandemic with the University System of Maryland, which includes multiple state universities, including Towson.
“AFSCME has demanded to bargain system-wide policies with the USM and they have refused, and as a result, front-line workers at our public universities are in danger,” said Stuart Katzenberg, the union’s director of collective bargaining.
With the one-week move to online classes, other campus services at Towson also are affected.
All on-campus activities are being canceled for next week and further move-ins to student dorms are being suspended.
Students who already moved in will receive “specific guidance” from university housing officials, the university said in a statement.
Burdick Hall, which houses the campus recreation center, also is closed through next week.