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University System of Maryland requiring masks on campus this fall amid coronavirus pandemic

The University System of Maryland is requiring students to wear face masks on campuses, codifying the new directive in its disciplinary guidelines as a means of preventing the coronavirus from spreading.

With plans to reopen this fall, the twelve affiliate institutions will allow students and faculty to return to the facilities but will reduce density in housing accommodations, dining halls and classrooms. The system will adopt a “hybrid” model that will offer many classes virtually and others in-person.

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The mask mandate, announced Wednesday during a Board of Regents special meeting, highlights the challenges of reopening institutions of higher education as the public health crisis continues to infect thousands nationwide each day. Debates about reopening schools this fall have escalated in recent weeks as students of all ages gear up for the next academic term, with many large school districts in the state already planning to start the year in an online-only setting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified face coverings and social distancing as key components of mitigating the coronavirus, which is easily transmissible through direct contact and via aerosols. Baltimore announced new rules Wednesday, restricting indoor bars and restaurants from serving patrons outdoors or via carryout online and calling on residents to cover their faces in public.

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Colleges and universities face extraordinary challenges this fall, especially as many face cuts to their budgets and reductions in what they can collect in room and board, parking and athletics fees. The state’s flagship university in College Park has long struggled with providing adequate ventilation in its buildings and has faced scrutiny for its handling of mold and asbestos. An adenovirus outbreak in 2018 that left one student dead drew further criticism for the university’s ability to communicate during crises.

In remarks, Vice Chancellor Joann Boughman said mask wearing would “be enforced,” but did not elaborate on what penalties people would face if they disregarded the measure. She also said social distancing would be required, and universities would help regulate physical proximity by spreading out students in classrooms and limiting in-person sessions to small groups.

Spokesperson Mike Lurie, in an email, said face mask use is already being enforced by the system.

The university system will also have students take their temperatures daily and log their symptoms on a portal, which will organize and aggregate the data. People with certain symptoms will be “flagged” and guided in how to get tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Contact tracing will begin on the campus level, Boughman said, with university officials working closely with state and local health departments. Such investigation will help identify whether a student could have become infected in a classroom setting, allowing administrators to make decisions and monitor potential outbreaks.

Students who test positive will not necessarily be asked to leave campus, Boughman added, though they will be required to isolate. Housing density on campus has been significantly reduced, she said, with priority given to freshmen, international students, and people with disabilities and those who are not able to commute or secure off-campus accommodations. Upperclassmen who require mostly face-to-face instruction due to advanced level coursework will also be given priority for on-campus housing.

Though no more than two students will share a room, a small group of students will share bathrooms in dormitories, Boughman said.

Most students should prepare to have many of their classes taught virtually even if they do come back to campus in the fall as residents, said system Chancellor Jay Perman. He called the combination of online and in-person courses a “high cost, high effort” undertaking, but one worth the investment.

“What we can do effectively in a remote format we will, because the health of our students, faculty and staff is our priority,” he said. “I’m not a stubborn man; if the effort isn’t enough and spread of COVID in Maryland presents challenges too tough to overcome, then yes, of course we’ll pivot to remote instruction.”

The hypothetical transition from a hybrid model to a fully online one will go smoother in the fall than it did in the spring, Perman said. State and local health officers will head this “trigger point” decision, ultimately having charge of whether the campus should shut down if the pandemic escalates. The partnership formed between these health officials and the institutions will also work to refine testing and tracing for campus communities, he added.

“We have no incentive to salvage an in-person semester if the science tells us we shouldn’t,” Perman said. “We know COVID has the last word in our plans.”

Perman said the system seeks to reopen in this fashion to retain students from low-income backgrounds, students of color and first generation college students who may not succeed without on-campus resources. As the country reckons with overturning systemic racism in media, the workforce, health care, and education, he said the system must position itself to protect the students most vulnerable to the pandemic.

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He cited the value of camaraderie and face-to-face emotional support as anchors of the decision, as well.

Boughman said some students will have courses available through the University of Maryland Global Campus, which already offers many of the classes that will move to an online setting this fall. Certain classes with high drop-out rates will continue to meet in person, she said, and laboratory coursework will take place face-to-face with some exceptions.

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