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University of Maryland plans for campus return include checking temperatures, more testing and new ways to track virus

University of Maryland College Park president Wallace Loh has announced more details about how the university plans to track and contain coronavirus when the fall semester begins later this year.
University of Maryland College Park president Wallace Loh has announced more details about how the university plans to track and contain coronavirus when the fall semester begins later this year. (Lloyd Fox, The Baltimore Sun)

The University of Maryland, College Park is planning a number of ways to track and contain the coronavirus when the school begins a phased reopening in August, including checking temperatures daily, requiring testing for anyone with a fever or symptoms, and tracking virus levels in campus wastewater.

University President Wallace D. Loh announced the new safety details in a late night email Monday. Anyone on campus would be asked to report their temperature daily — the university did not clarify if this was required — and testing would be available for anyone who wants it.

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The university would report positive cases to the state for contact tracing, which could be aided by the university’s contact tracing resources.

The university will provide temperature gauges and the reporting can be done electronically, or by filling out a form, in an effort to safeguard personal data. During a pilot testing program, the university health center and medical school delivered test results in 24 hours.

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Campus faculty also are working on ways to monitor wastewater, air quality and high-touch surfaces for the virus, Loh said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported researchers in China found traces of the virus in feces after they studied samples from a coronavirus patient who died.

This form of monitoring “can identify areas of concern to help prevent additional outbreaks,” Loh wrote.

Additionally, the university plans to continuously remind people on campus to wear face coverings near others, remain 6 feet away from others, wash hands frequently and stay home if sick. The university still is determining what courses will be offered in-person, online or in a “blended format."

“Risk management of COVID-19 is an evolving process,” Loh wrote. "The disease is evolving. Scientific and clinical knowledge of the disease is evolving. The risks cannot be eliminated, but they can be reduced.”

The university is currently determining the room assignments and daily schedules, Loh said. Part of the plan sets aside residential space for isolation and quarantining. Triple and quadruple rooms in dormitories will be converted into doubles, and floor lounges will be made into single or double rooms to minimize the opportunities for larger gatherings. Dining halls will open with reduced seating capacity, carry-out options and physical distancing.

Additional information is expected to be available online by mid-July. Summer sessions are being conducted remotely, and Loh wrote faculty are preparing to move entirely to online instruction after the Thanksgiving break if there is a resurgence of the pandemic in late fall. Faculty and staff will return to campus in phases over several months, and those plans include telework and alternating days for in-person staffing.

“The university’s response will evolve until a vaccine or treatment is available," Loh wrote.

Serena Saunders, a public policy graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she’s worried about the staff tasked with maintaining the campus amid the pandemic. She’s unsure how the plans will work due to the size of the university’s population and property. The plan would be more sensible for a smaller campus, she said.

Saunders said she’s “not super happy” about the university’s reopening. She understands the decision “conceptually, but practically I don’t feel super safe going back to campus."

“I’m kind of worried about how many strangers you’ll come into contact with on a daily basis at UMD, and contact tracing with that aspect is going to be super difficult,” Saunders said.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released guidelines Monday for reopening universities.

Crystal Watson, a Hopkins professor and one of the authors of the report, said the University of Maryland plan “sounds very reasonable and fairly forward-leaning in terms of being protective of student, faculty and staff health and safety.”

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Educational institutions need to focus on ways to make “high risk settings” such as dorms, large classes, dining areas and event venues safe enough to warrant returning to campus, Watson said. Failing to do so could result in “a much larger epidemic given the numbers of people that are gathered together,” she said.

The University of Maryland could “set a great example" for other colleges with their plan, Watson said. Plans will vary among institutions, she said, but the university’s plan addresses the general topics colleges should be thinking about.

“Students and parents should be mindful that colleges aren’t going to look exactly like we all think of them, at least in the near term," Watson said. "We’re all going to have to make modifications as we decide to come back together.”

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