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Maryland colleges bringing students back to campus despite pandemic, saying they’ve learned from fall experience

Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, sitting inside of one of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was relieving to have some classes on campus, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021
Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, sitting inside of one of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was relieving to have some classes on campus, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Many Maryland colleges and universities are bringing students back to campus this month for the beginning of the spring semester, sometimes reversing choices made last fall to offer most classes online.

The reopenings are scheduled even as Maryland is reporting daily case numbers and a testing positivity rate several times the levels when school started last year.

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But administrators are feeling emboldened to welcome students back to campus after fine-tuning plans based on five months of experience, advice handed over from other universities and new approaches. And they are tightening safety protocols with lessons learned in the fall.

Schools that will hold at least some on-campus instruction this semester include Johns Hopkins, Towson, Loyola and Frostburg universities. Others, including Goucher College and Morgan State University, plan to continue largely online.

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Towson University’s classes were offered online for much of the first semester after a significant number of students tested positive for COVID-19. This spring, students can return to campus if they agree to undergo testing and spend the first two weeks of classes online.

The overall anxiety over students returning to campus has eased since the summer, said Vernon Hurte, Towson University’s vice president of student affairs. The administrator pointed to several promising developments this fall in COVID-19 testing expansion, medical treatments and vaccines.

Signs remind students that masks are required on the Loyola University Maryland campus, which is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021
Signs remind students that masks are required on the Loyola University Maryland campus, which is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Still, university officials have installed strict protocols for returning to campus and beefed up their dedicated quarantine and isolation space for students who contract the virus.

“Much comes with experience,” Hurte said. “We’re certainly at a much different place today than we were last summer.”

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After holding classes online for the fall semester, Johns Hopkins University officials plan to return some undergraduate and graduate students to campus this spring for in-person classes and residential living. Administrators said they turned to places like Cornell and Duke University, which were open this fall, for guidance.

“We simply know a lot more now than we did six months ago about how to safely, slowly and carefully bring students back to campus,” said Lainie Rutkow, a senior adviser to the university president and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Some of the lessons learned at Cornell and Duke were to make sure the institution had an extensive testing program in place in order to maintain a safe residential program. The other emphasis was on creating a social contract where the students, faculty and staff feel “like they’re in it together,” said provost Sunil Kumar.

“People wear masks not because we have 75 safety ambassadors who monitor compliance, but because not letting their fellow students down is part of it,” Kumar said.

Other schools are also placing emphasis on the role of social norms to encourage compliance. Loyola University Maryland allowed students to begin returning to campus this month, and many have followed the rules to a tee, said Terrence Sawyer, senior vice president of advancement at Loyola.

“Our students made it very clear that they wanted to come back,” Sawyer said. “We said, ‘We’ve done all we can do to make it as safe for you as possible; you have to show us you can make the right decisions.’ We’re very proud of them.”

Despite Loyola’s classes being held online in the fall, Loyola officials learned that a number of students moved to the Baltimore area anyway. By allowing students to return to campus, the university can more closely monitor safety practices and test for the virus, Sawyer said.

“We think that it’s been demonstrated that with really strong public health measures and consistent, frequent testing and contact tracing, you really can operate a university,” he said.

For Martin Csongradi, a 21-year-old junior at Loyola, the school’s decision to allow some in-person classes came as a relief.

“There’s something that you just don’t get by just looking at a Zoom screen and seeing 16 black squares and only a few other faces,” he said.

Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, standing outside of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was relieving to have some classes on campus, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021
Loyola University Maryland junior Martin Csongradi, standing outside of Loyola's modular classrooms, said it was relieving to have some classes on campus, although a bit unnerving. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Csongradi, who’s from Pennsylvania, had already been living close to campus, in Charles Village. Occasionally, he would wander onto campus — a veritable “ghost town,” he said. Seeing students on campus again has been refreshing, if a bit unsettling.

“It’s a bit unnerving to see,” said Csongradi, a political science student. “I’m hoping that it goes well. I think everybody’s a bit apprehensive about this semester.”

Some experts and communities have feared the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses, where students often live in shared spaces.

A recent study by researchers in North Carolina, Indiana and Washington found that the reopening of college campuses was associated with a subsequent increase in COVID-19 incidence in the community. The increase in cases was larger for counties that contained a campus that reopened for in-person instruction, the study found.

The staff readying universities for students are apprehensive, too, said Todd Holden, president of the union that represents workers at the University of Maryland, College Park — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1072.

In the fall, College Park’s campus was open to students, who took a majority of their classes online, but still had some opportunities for in-person learning, and lived in dorm rooms by themselves. This spring, the university has a similar game plan, and many of the worries that workers felt in August remain, with the addition of an ever-worrisome winter surge of the virus, Holden said.

Some things did improve over the course of the fall semester, Holden said. More informational material about the virus has been translated into other languages to aid workers who don’t speak English as their first language. There’s generally more personal protective equipment to go around. But when thousands of students descend on College Park, this time with peaking hospitalization and case numbers in Maryland, familiar fears are likely to return.

“We are doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus, which includes rallying our community to continue holding each other accountable on mask wearing and social distancing,” a university spokeswoman said in a statement. “We also plan on doubling our testing frequency and capacity for the spring semester.”

Frostburg State University is moving forward with a hybrid model of in-person and online classes this spring after struggling to manage COVID-19 cases last semester. The school at one point reported a nearly 14% positivity rate of tests conducted on and off campus.

School officials say they are planning to perform 40,000 COVID-19 tests during the spring semester — nearly four times the number performed in the fall.

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Some schools like Morgan State University and Goucher College have opted to remain closed to students with some exceptions.

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Dr. Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of Morgan State’s school of community health and policy, helped head the university’s spring reopening plan, which emphasized flexibility. Morgan’s courses will primarily be held online this semester.

But to make any definitive statements about the spring semester is to put a stake in unsolid ground, she said.

“We’re all still sensitive to change, which is why you may hear people hedging their bets,” Dobson Sydnor said of Maryland colleges and universities. “We’re in responsive mode. We’re all sensitive to everyone’s emotions, feelings and reactions. Where we are in January may not be where we are in March.”

Inside a temporary dining hall tent set up on the Diane Geppi-Aikens field. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021
Inside a temporary dining hall tent set up on the Diane Geppi-Aikens field. Loyola University Maryland is one of the schools that decided to allow some in-person learning after being closed in the fall. 01-22-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Madeline Tredway will soon begin her second semester at Goucher College — a place she’s never been.

The 18-year-old spent her winter break browsing both college dorm room catalogs and Baltimore’s coronavirus data in hopes it would meet Goucher’s reopening threshold. Representatives of the college have said classes will for now remain online during the spring semester.

“The pandemic presents an ever-changing situation, and colleges must adapt,” Goucher officials said in a statement. “Based upon the latest public health data, Goucher College will continue to update our opening plans and evaluate the best options for our students and community. We expect to make further announcements next week.”

In the meantime, Tredway plans to attend class from home near Austin, Texas, where she feels like she still has one foot in high school.

“I do believe that Goucher is making the right decision,” the 18-year-old said. “And it’s kind of hard to say that.”

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