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University of Maryland, College Park lifts ‘sequester-in-place’ order, citing promising COVID metrics

One week after instituting a “sequester-in-place” mandate for student housing, the University of Maryland College Park has lifted the order, citing promising COVID-19 metrics in the aftermath of outbreaks on campus.

In addition, the university will resume in-person instruction Monday after suspending live classes for a week, according to an email to the university community from University President Darryll J. Pines and Dr. Spyridon Marinopoulos, the chief medical officer for the university’s health center.

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Their announcement said the number of positive cases had slowed on campus and highlighted a low testing positivity rate, about 1.7%, according to the university’s coronavirus dashboard. The university officials credited the campus community’s vigilance for curbing the spread.

“We recognize that these measures created challenges for many of our students — both physically and mentally — and we want to express our sincere gratitude for your compliance and ongoing commitment to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the statement said. Officials will monitor the metrics and “intervene appropriately as needed, including requiring additional testing in areas” of increased virus transmission.

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The university’s coronavirus data shows that quarantine and isolation housing for students who contracted the virus or who come into close contact with those who did is 82% full, though officials said they had ample space. And, while the positivity rate, which tracks the tests administered by the university, is low, the number of new cases reported daily to the school remains elevated compared with the beginning of February.

As of Friday, there was an average of about 37 new cases per day over the past week associated with the university. That’s up from 28 the same day a week earlier, and more than triple the average figure from two weeks ago.

The university officials’ announcement also eased restrictions on gatherings and opened up some campus recreation activities on a reservation-only basis. Indoor gatherings are to be limited to 10 people, while outdoor gatherings may include up to 25 people, provided there is mask wearing and social distancing.

Gatherings regardless of venue, indoor or out, had been capped as of Feb. 18 at no more than five people.

Small gatherings were the driving force behind the surge of infections over the last two weeks, the university’s vice president for student affairs, Patricia Perillo, told The Baltimore Sun.

“The positive cases are by and large mostly coming from groups who are spending time in their pods with six or seven of their friends, feeling pretty comfortable, feeling like they know where everybody’s been,” Perillo said in an interview Friday. “They might have a meal together, distanced, but take their masks off. And that’s why we’re seeing the spread.”

Students and campus workers have expressed concerns about their safety on campus, and this announcement has done little to allay the fears of the union representing about 3,300 university employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“We remain concerned about the health and safety of our members, students and the greater community,” said Stuart Katzenberg, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 3, on Saturday. “Just yesterday union members working in dorms requested N95 and KN95 masks but they were denied. How many infected students and staff is enough?”

University spokesperson Katie Lawson said in an emailed statement that any employee who is denied a mask should report it anonymously.

“Under no circumstances would we advise or permit denial of masks to any of our employees in a pandemic,” Lawson said.

After students raised concerns about whether the university was enforcing the restrictions effectively, university officials emphasized potential disciplinary actions in their latest statement against those who flout the university’s public health restrictions and guidelines, including proper mask wearing, distancing, hand washing and regular COVID-19 testing. For people who violate these protocols, the reprimands can include suspension and, in the case of repeated violations, expulsion.

“While we are now able to lift the sequester-in-place restrictions, our fight against this pandemic is not over. COVID remains present within our community,” Pines’ statement said. “We do not take this issue lightly, and we have and will continue to impose significant consequences for community members who fail to abide by the” protocols.

The university’s Office of Student Conduct had received 600 referrals about potential COVID-19 violations, leading to students losing housing privileges and more than 30 suspensions. Nobody has been expelled.

Meanwhile, the City of College Park has stepped up compliance enforcement, resulting in more than 250 warnings and municipal infractions for issues like noise and gathering limit violations, and the assessment of more than $35,000 in fines, the university said.

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