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‘Nobody expects that this is going to go well’: Some Towson University faculty fear returning, expect campus to close within weeks

Towson University began welcoming students back to campus earlier this month.
Towson University began welcoming students back to campus earlier this month. (Alexander Wright)

As students, staff and faculty plan to return to Towson University on Monday, some are skeptical about the college’s ability to enforce its safety measures and say the university is unnecessarily putting students and staff at risk.

Some also say the university is selling a vision of a college experience to incoming students that will not be actualized, when the expectation among staff members is that the campus will close within weeks.

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“Nobody expects that this is going to go well,” said Brittni Ballard, a learning technologies librarian at the university’s Albert S. Cook Library. “But nobody wants to push back.”

Towson’s fall semester will start Monday, Aug. 24, and is expecting to house 3,500 students on campus in residence halls as the fall term begins — about 50% of its on-campus housing capacity prior to the pandemic.Last year, the school had an enrollment of about 23,000.

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Students must show they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 within 10 days before they’re allowed to return to campus, although one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association asserts that students and staff should be tested every two days for colleges to safely reopen.

The university on Thursday launched its own campus-wide coronavirus dashboard, to be updated weekly, that will track the number of positive cases among students. Staff and faculty members, even those working remotely, are required to self-report their symptoms every morning to their supervisors.

On Friday, Towson reported that 10 people — six students and four employees — had tested positive, 0.29% of the 3,403 tests administered.

Some 85% of classes will be taught remotely, and the university has purchased about 30,000 signs to mark seats for adequate social distancing, classroom capacity and directional signs to help the flow of foot traffic. Still, some faculty members question how effective that will be to ensure that students wear masks and adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

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“When the library was open during spring break in March, we observed numerous instances of students violating social distancing guidelines within this space,” reads a letter addressed to Provost Melanie Perreault from Cook librarians.

“We have no reason to believe this behavior would be any different this fall,” the letter said.

And some faculty members said they do not expect the university to enforce mask wearing, although it’s mandatory on campus.

Three faculty members said that university officials were vague during virtual town halls when asked how the school would address a student or staff member who flouted the mask mandate or social-distancing requirements.

When asked how the university planned to enforce its policy, a university spokesman referred a reporter to Towson’s protocol for addressing noncompliance, which gives contact information for three departments students and staff may call if they observe poor safety practices — the Office of Environmental Health & Safety, Human Resources and the TU Ethics & Compliance hotline.

“They may be trying a softer approach — lots of digital posters and and paper signs,” said Daniel Mydlack, chair of the Towson chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit association that advocates for the interests of faculty members.

If a staff member or student demonstrates repeated noncompliance with the school’s workplace safety guidelines, that person could face disciplinary action through Human Resources or Student Affairs, according to Towson’s website.

Students or staff who don’t adhere to public safety guidance could have their access to campus limited, but a school spokesman could not say when punitive action would be appropriate.

A Towson spokesman would not say under what conditions the school would decide to close its campus, adding there are several other agencies that could play a role in that decision, like the Baltimore County Health Department and the University System of Maryland.

The university has reserved a residence hall in the Glen Complex to house students who live on-campus should they test positive for COVID-19. Staff members who report COVID-19 symptoms to their supervisors will have to stay away from campus.

Mydlack said the university was doing all it could to open safely under trying conditions, but, he added, there needs to be “some kind of immediate response” from the university if students or staff ignore safety precautions.

The librarians assert in a July 31 letter to school officials that school administration went against recommendations outlined by the Cook Library Reopening Committee by opening up a 24-hour study space for students as well as study areas on two floors closed during the spring that library staff recommended remain closed to keep students from handling off-limits materials, as the library has implemented contactless services.

“University administration is not checking in with folks to see if we feel as though we can provide a safe space for students,” Ballard said, “because the library largely does not feel like we can be that space, and yet we’re being forced to open our building anyway.”

The library’s reduced occupancy can accommodate 300 people, according to a faculty member who requested anonymity out of concern over job security.

“That’s a lot of people in that building,” she said.

That faculty member also said that the university is doing away with paid leave that was given to staff members who could not work remotely in the spring; the university says staff members who cannot work remotely and don’t feel comfortable returning to the campus may use accrued paid leave.

Some staff members could also be eligible for additional paid leave through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Mydlack, who is also an associate professor in the electronic media and film department, said he’s been approached by faculty members with “abstract” concerns about reopening, but that he had not heard from an overwhelming number of educators who fear for their safety.

But staff within Cook library or other school offices, like the Center for Student Diversity, are not included in the AAUP.

“There may be some faculty that have real concerns,” he said, but “nobody has to do any face-to-face [instruction] if they don’t want to.”

Beyond worries “about ourselves and our co-workers who have to go back to campus ... we’re also worried about students,” a faculty member said. “The picture being painted to students is very different than what it’s actually like.”

Morgan Olencz, a Towson senior who lives off campus, said Thursday that most of her professors still have not communicated which of her six classes will be taught remotely or in person.

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“I basically just feel as though the university kind of made their plans and told the professors and the students at the same time,” Olencz said. “I just think the lack of communication is so negligent. People’s money is riding on this; not everyone has unlimited money.”

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“Students are paying money for an experience they think is going to last until Thanksgiving, but nobody in higher ed thinks that,” Ballard said.

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents amid the pandemic voted to freeze tuition and room and board rates for the 2020-2021 school year. Full time, in-state Towson students pay nearly $10,200 for tuition and fees and $8,652 to live on campus each year. Students could be refunded room-and-board fees at residence halls managed by the university.

Towson students are meant to transition to fully online classes after the Thanksgiving holiday for the remainder of the semester, a practice other universities are applying in anticipation of a spike in coronavirus cases that health experts say might come during the flu season.

Schools within the University System of Maryland, like Towson, are opening campuses, while other institutions, like Goucher College, are choosing to hold classes solely online.

The concern over reopening the campus follows closures at several institutions, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, due to outbreaks among students, many which have been linked to sororities, fraternities and parties. Towson has approximately 2,800 active Greek life members, but the school does not have dedicated housing for fraternities or sororities.

Mydlack, too, said he did not expect the campus to remain open until Thanksgiving.

Still, he said, the attitude the broader college community should adopt is one of exploration.

“Let’s see what we can make of these next two semesters and not compare it and judge to previous years,” he said.

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