As with college campuses elsewhere, officials at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County are grappling with how to conduct a safe and productive academic semester against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
The university, which is using a model that mixes online and in-person classes, seems to be having a successful semester so far, based on the numbers.
Between Aug. 27 and Sept. 15, 1,729 faculty, staff and students were tested for COVID-19. Of the documented results from both on and off-campus, just four students and no staff or faculty were positive, putting the university’s current positivity rate at 0.2% — 3.1 percentage points lower than Baltimore County’s positivity rate.
By comparison, nearby Towson University recently had a positivity rate of 8.1%, when school officials opted to go almost entirely online for the semester. And the flagship University of Maryland, College Park campus has a positivity rate of 3.6%.
Unlike a number of other campuses, including the area ones in the University System of Maryland, UMBC has a built-in geographic advantage. It is more isolated than many other schools, including Towson and College Park. The school’s location on Hilltop Circle lacks the nearby bars that can serve as coronavirus spreader environments.
In addition, UMBC has a smaller enrollment, with a total of 13,767 students compared with Towson’s 23,000 students and College Park’s 36,000.
It also has fewer sorority and fraternity members, who have caused problems vis-a-vis the virus' spread at schools nationwide. UMBC has about 500 such “Greek life” students, while Towson has 2,800 and College Park has about 4,700.
Finally, some would say the nature of the most popular majors at UMBC means the student body is serious about their studies: computer and information sciences and support services; biological and biomedical sciences; psychology; engineering; and social sciences.
Nancy Young, UMBC’s vice president for student affairs, said on-campus housing is operating at one-third the usual capacity and that each residential student has a single room.
Although it is still early in the semester, she said students seem to be adhering to the safety rules.
“I have not gotten wind of any large parties that other [schools] are concerned with,” she said. “I’m impressed with what we are seeing in our students.”
Paul Dillon, chief of police at UMBC, is responsible for enforcing the precautions implemented by the administration.
His role includes making sure faculty, staff and students are remaining 6 feet apart and wearing face masks and that the campus population remains manageable by counting the number of cars parked on campus twice a day.
For the most part, he said, faculty, staff and students have complied with the rules; however, he gently reminds those who are not wearing a face mask to do so and carries extras just in case.
Typically, 17,000 people are on campus, however, this semester the authorized number has shrunk to 4,000, Dillon said.
Since the semester began, he said he has not heard of crowd scenes on campus.
“We have had a couple of calls for gatherings of 10,” he said. “We are really lucky we haven’t had any [large gatherings] that we know of.”
So far, he said, the precautions seem to be working.
“The university has done a great job with signs [describing] symptoms and [reminding] people to wear a mask,” he said. “The messages that have gone out to the community are proving effective at this point.”
This semester, 89% of classes at UMBC are being conducted online; 9% are hybrid, or have an in-person and online component; and 2% are being held in person, while on-campus housing is being kept at 34% capacity — 1,283 students across campus.
For students who test positive for COVID-19 or report symptoms, the university has dedicated on-campus quarantine housing. Food and laundry services are being made available to those students.
Lenn Caron, associate vice president for facilities management at UMBC, who is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of buildings on campus, makes sure classrooms, conference rooms, offices and other shared spaces remain clean and disinfected, with high-touch surfaces sanitized regularly.
To promote campus safety, the custodial staff placed signs around campus to remind visitors of the rules.
“[People] are doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is encouraging for us,” he said.
Mehrshad Devin, president of the Student Government Association and a biology and physics major, said he believes the university has done a good job protecting the health and safety of faculty, staff and students in comparison to other universities in the University System of Maryland and across the country.
“The good thing about UMBC is that it actively listens to its students and staff, and we all make collective decisions,” he said. “What we saw this summer was that a lot of students were really worried and nervous about COVID-19. I think the hesitation and the caution that was presented to UMBC by UMBC is what helped us take all of these necessary precautions for us to be safe.”