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Towson University shifts to remote learning for fall semester, closes most in-person classes and housing

Towson University will hold classes online for the rest of the fall semester and close its campus to most in-person classes as well as its residence halls, after a significant number of students tested positive for COVID-19 just before students returned to classes Monday.

“My greatest priority and responsibility is to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Towson University President Kim Schatzel wrote in a campuswide email Wednesday morning. “The events of the last few days are a reminder of the unpredictable nature of the virus.”

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The switch to remote learning came four days after the university announced Saturday that classes this week would be conducted remotely. That decision came after 55 students, faculty and staff tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Another 11 positive tests were recorded Sunday, Schatzel said.

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As part of Wednesday’s announcement, Schatzel said some face-to-face instruction and research in Towson’s College of Health Professions, Fisher College of Science & Mathematics, and the College of Fine Arts and Communication and some graduate programs still will be permitted on campus.

The college also will work with students who are required to complete lab instruction, studios and performance-based classes for their degrees, she said.

Wednesday’s announcement addresses only the fall semester and does not provide any guidance for the spring semester, set to start Jan. 25.

Towson, which enrolled about 23,000 students last year, had planned to have a mix of in-person and online classes this fall like some other area colleges and universities. Some schools, including Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, Loyola University Maryland and Goucher College, decided to offer only remote learning for the fall.

Some Towson staff members and students had been skeptical about the university’s ability to enforce safety measures, and said the university was putting students at risk. Some predicted the campus would have to shut down soon after the start of classes.

An online petition to require “routine and mandatory testing” gained more than 100 signers in two days.

Zoe Wollenschlaeger, a junior studying political science and international studies, called Wednesday’s announcement disappointing, “but if it’s what’s needed to maintain the safety of our community, then that’s the reality.”

Wollenschlaeger, who lives off campus and does not have on-campus classes this semester, expected to come to campus during fundraisers with her sorority. But, she added, the sorority already had pivoted to holding many of its events virtually.

“It’s about being creative and making the best out of it,” she said of the sorority’s activities this semester.

Connor Cameron, a Towson senior in his last semester, said he believes online classes should not cost as much as in-person classes, based on the more limited interaction between professors and students and “the fact that you’re not using a facility for” the classes.

Full-time, in-state Towson students pay nearly $10,200 a year for tuition and fees, compared to the more than $24,000 paid by out-of-state students. It costs $8,652 to live on campus this year, a rate frozen by the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

“I … really feel for the people that paid a lot for money to be at Towson,” Cameron said

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Refunds will be issued to students who already paid for on-campus housing and dining plans for the fall term, Schatzel wrote. On-campus housing costs will be reimbursed 100%, a Towson spokesperson said.

Students can begin moving out of residence halls immediately and must be completely out by Sept. 4, according to a university email to students. Those who wish to remain on campus must request to do so. Student athletes, students with internships and those in certain laboratory, clinical and experiential courses in the arts will be permitted to continue living on campus.

Kimberly Maschal’s daughter signed a lease in February to move into Aspen Heights Towson, a new, independently managed apartment building on York Road. Her lease was executed before the apartment building and the university reached an agreement in August that allows some 200 students to lease room through the school.

It’s bothersome, Maschal said, that her daughter is on the hook to pay $1,224 a month in rent for a 10-month lease to be close to campus.

“And now they don’t have to be there,” she said.

A property manager for Aspen Heights Towson declined to comment on student leases. Per a university email, around 200 students who executed leases with Aspen Heights through the university, rather than directly through its management company, were to be provided “direct communication” by 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Baltimore County Council member David Marks, whose district includes Towson, said the university’s decision will have “serious repercussions in the community.”

Residents are concerned that Towson students needing to leave on-campus housing — totaling a little under 3,000 — will seek housing near campus, creating parking issues and more noise complaints, Marks said.

“I would [have] preferred for Towson University to have been virtual for the first few months of the academic year,” Marks said.

To accommodate an anticipated spike in coronavirus cases this fall, Towson had moved up the start of classes by a week to this past Monday. All classes after Thanksgiving break were scheduled to be held online.

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The University System of Maryland, which includes Towson and the various University of Maryland campuses, required COVID-19 testing for all on-campus students and employees returning in the fall. Students, faculty and staff returning to campus were required to show a negative COVID-19 test within 10 days of their return to campus and provide proof of a positive antibodies test.

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Jay A. Perman, the university system chancellor, said in a statement that Towson’s decision shows “our plans are working as intended” because of the steps taken to test students, staff and faculty and work with the county health department to trace positive cases.

“Towson followed its data,” Perman said.

Rather than mandating all state colleges close, Perman said decisions over campus closures will be left up to individual institutions because “what worked for one institution wouldn’t necessarily work for another.”

The 55 positive results announced Saturday at the university came from 627 tests conducted, which amounts to a testing positivity rate of 8.77%. Public health experts have set a benchmark for positivity rates of 5% or less before easing coronavirus restrictions.

The statewide positivity rate was 3.35% for the last seven days, as calculated by the state health department.unlike those at the University of North Carolina and University of Alabama, where outbreaks were reported on campus and attributed to spread in residence halls and sororities and fraternities.

Unlike cases at the University of North Carolina and University of Alabama, where outbreaks were reported on campus and attributed to spread in residence halls and sororities and fraternities, Schatzel attributed the Towson cases to off-campus community spread that could not be pinpointed to any one location or event. UNC has moved to virtual learning, while Alabama, which has now recorded more than 500 cases, is attempting other measures to rein in the outbreak.

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