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Towson University’s switch to a digital semester came with careful thought | COMMENTARY

Towson University began welcoming students back to campus earlier this month, but now says the semester will be entirely digital.
Towson University began welcoming students back to campus earlier this month, but now says the semester will be entirely digital. (Alexander Wright)

Towson University President Kim Schatzel has often said that when it comes to leading and decision-making, she will not be afraid to adapt to a specific need or circumstance and she will always follow data. So, when the difficult decision to pivot this fall’s academic instruction from a partial to a full remote learning semester was made early this week, it was done through careful analysis of facts, data and science — and with the health and safety of the students, faculty and community at the forefront.

That’s what good leaders do — they make tough decisions for the right reasons.

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In its “Return to TU” plan, developed in June by a task force comprised of students, faculty and staff, the university stressed that its decisions would be led with health and safety as its priorities. Financial considerations would be secondary.

In pausing all in-person learning over the weekend, President Schatzel was taking a cautious and reasoned approach to assess whether an unexpected batch of 55 positive tests in a sample — in one day, compared to 17 positive results in the eight prior weeks combined — was an anomaly or a result that needed further evaluation. When the Baltimore County contact tracing efforts revealed that there was no single source — no housing situation, specific gathering or community group — to pinpoint for the increase in positive results, it was clear that the unpredictable nature of the virus was going to make it difficult for the university to maintain its original plan.

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As many in our communities grapple with how to balance the needs of their students — be it K-12 pupils or college learners — it is clear that there is no single solution for every educator or learner, family or institution.

Simply put: there’s no easy answer that will satisfy or please everyone.

The fall semester plan that Towson University established was one that relied heavily on personal choice. This was intentional with the dual goal of limiting density on campus while providing the right learning and working environment for individuals.

The plan enabled students to move back to campus if they desired to do so. It also afforded them the option to stay away from campus if they so elected. It enabled faculty to teach remotely if they wished, and to use classrooms — whether the instruction was in person or using technology for a remote platform.

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The plan further called for all students and faculty to move to a fully-remote learning environment after the Thanksgiving break.

Unfortunately, the unforeseen circumstances of the past weekend expedited that process.

Being able to adjust to this ever-evolving virus is paramount for community, business and educational leaders. Each leader and organization must develop their own path, after relying on data and best practices, to ensure success.

The university had fully and properly prepared and implemented its plan to provide a safe and healthy environment for those that chose to return to campus. Protocols requiring the wearing of masks and maintaining physical distance were firmly established. Over 38,000 signs were installed on campus that reinforced those protocols and over 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer was provided for student, faculty and administration use. Developing the capabilities and acquiring access to platforms to enable remote learning were secured.

These steps were not inexpensive. However, it is a necessary expense to ensure that things are done right — keeping safety and health foremost in mind.

President Schatzel and the university leadership — working in concert with the University System of Maryland, Baltimore County government and health leadership, and the health and science experts of our region — did all they could to plan and provide for a safe learning and working environment for the fall 2020 semester.

Regrettably, when unexpected circumstances challenged those plans they were forced to adjust.

Fortunately, they were equally prepared to quickly adopt a plan that provided for the health and safety of the students and faculty while ensuring a quality academic program that all have come to expect from one of Greater Baltimore’s anchor institutions that is recognized as one of the top 100 public institutions in the U.S.

Donald C. Fry (donaldf@gbc.org) is chair of the Towson University Board of Visitors, a university advisory board.

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