In a cascade of announcements Tuesday evening and into Wednesday, Maryland colleges and universities said they would be sending students home and turning to online learning for at least two weeks in the face of a coronavirus pandemic.
There’s been no confirmed cases on a college campus in the state. Young people who get COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, aren’t usually horribly sick. So why is nearly every public and private institution temporarily canceling face-to-face classes after spring break?
Health officials say it is the correct decision, one that is born out of experience during past epidemics and from other countries already dealing with COVID-19, such as Italy. Limiting contact slows the spread of the disease, they said, allowing hospitals to keep pace with those needing care.
University closures “are part of a larger set of interventions that could have a big impact overall," said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “We don’t know yet how much university closures can help versus canceling large gatherings versus canceling other events." However, he said that the virus spreads when people come together and so "if we can slow that down for a time, hopefully we can ... give more time for institutions to prepare and have less sick people all at one time.”
Health officials are now calling for social distancing, a new term that has entered the public consciousness in the past week. The idea is to stay away from others to prevent spreading the virus.
The textbook example comes from the 1918 Spanish flu when two cities — Philadelphia and St. Louis — reacted differently. Philadelphia held a parade attended by 200,000 people. A few days later, the hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. By the end of the week, 4,500 people had died.
When St. Louis experienced its first cases, leaders locked down the city forbidding meetings of more than 20 people. The death rate there was half of Philadelphia’s.
A chart of the illnesses shows a very steep spike of cases in Philadelphia and a flat low curve of cases that extended over a longer period in St. Louis. A 2007 study of the 1918 flu indicates that multiple measures can be used to slow the virus to produce that low, flattened curve. The key, researchers found, was to start early before the disease was widespread.
How long university access will be restricted is unclear. But Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the 177,000-student University System of Maryland, said leadership including the college presidents and chancellor are listening to health care providers who are concerned the country could quickly run out of intensive care beds.
Some students at Towson University and UMBC began packing up their dorm rooms Tuesday and Wednesday at the direction of their schools, with the unanswered question of whether they will be back at all this semester.
A long term closure brings a host of issues to college campuses. What happens to hourly workers who won’t be able to do their jobs? How do students taking laboratory sciences finish their course work? How will professors ensure the security of online exams?
UMBC information systems freshman Joshua Sanchez, a Calvert County resident, said he and his peers are wondering if the school is going to do anything to reimburse students who pay for housing and dining meals on campus. His sister UMBC senior Rachael Sanchez, has three jobs on campus, and she’s worried the closures will affect her ability to make money.
“Many people have on campus jobs and if we’re not able to do those jobs we might have an issue paying bills and personal expenses,” she said. “I think overall, we’re not trying to panic."
“There’s a little bit of confusion as people try to figure out their living situations and the nitty-gritty of paying their bills.”
Some of Joshua Sanchez’s professors, he said, are worried the school will extend the period for which campus is closed as more cases come up over spring break.
“Two weeks could turn into a month,” Sanchez said. He’s nonetheless hopeful he and his peers will be fine, adding that he’s read the elderly and those who are already ill are more susceptible to the virus than people in his generation.
“Spring break is a moment of truth. Do you let students go and come back when the chances are much higher someone is infected?" said Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “And universities are in some ways responsible to kids when they are here. It creates a sense of not wanting to make decisions that put students in harm’s way.”
"There are so many challenges here and so many unknowns. Italy was a real wake up call. They have a great health care system but there’s not enough room for patients. We have to be honest that’s a scenario we could see here if weren’t not able to prevent it,” said Sharfstein.
Despite all of the health consequences, officials say they are aware that there are other consequences for students if they cannot get access to the course work, or don’t finish a semester and yet carry the financial aid debt from it. The decision is highly unusual. Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said he cannot remember a time in the past 50 years — with the exception of Hurricane Katrina when universities were forced to shut their doors.
“We are in a pandemic and institutions are making complicated decisions very quickly,” Hartle said. “I believe institutions are erring on the side of caution.”
There’s even questions about whether to hold commencements, USM’s Boughman said. She said the presidents are aware that for some students getting to graduation is a “life changing event” that would be difficult to miss. University system presidents discussed it on a Wednesday conference call and Boughman expects a decision to be made in about two weeks to give parents enough time to decide on their travel plans.
The pandemic may not be as severe in the United States as it is in other countries, said Johns Hopkins’ Inglesby, but it is unclear how many cases we have because testing has not been extensive. Nevertheless, he said, measures can work to help the situation.
“We see in other countries these interventions have been done after hundreds of deaths. If they had been done earlier they would have made a difference sooner.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn Nobles contributed to this story.