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UM president: These are the reasons I reopened the state’s flagship campus | COMMENTARY

The University of Maryland at College Park has put in place a hybrid learning environment where some students are back on campus and others are taking virtual classes.
The University of Maryland at College Park has put in place a hybrid learning environment where some students are back on campus and others are taking virtual classes. (Carmichaellibrary // Wikimedia Commons)

Students are back at the University of Maryland this week for a hybrid semester stressing both coronavirus safety and a rich educational experience. We have taken comprehensive safety precautions and worked to provide as much in-person teaching and activities as possible on our de-densified campus

When people ask why I am reopening the physical grounds of the flagship campus of the University System of Maryland, I tell them:

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  • I believe we must rise to the challenge of finding ways to live with the virus while a vaccine is developed.
  • I believe our students deserve as academically and socially-rich of an on-campus experience as possible.
  • Many of our students, for personal reasons, rely on our campus as a safe haven to learn and grow.
  • I want to protect the livelihoods of our 11,000 faculty and staff who depend on the University for their economic well-being.
  • I believe it is our responsibility to deliver world class teaching, cutting-edge research, and impactful service that benefits humankind and boosts the state’s economy.
  • And because I believe we can achieve this and fulfill our number one priority of protecting the health and safety of our campus community.

This hybrid approach — about 20% of classes and activities are in-person, and some students are living on campus — reflects the significant difference of opinion revealed in campus surveys, town halls and listening sessions. Many students crave the experiences that are difficult to recreate online, while many faculty and staff at higher risk of infection want to telework. I respect and understand that, and we permit them to work remotely, while high-quality student services are maintained. Unfortunately, some faculty and staff cannot perform their jobs virtually. For them, we have gone to great lengths to minimize their risk of infection.

To make this campus safe, hundreds of us — including faculty, staff, and students — have planned for months. We did extensive investigation and consulted with public health experts, local and state authorities, local property owners and University System of Maryland officials.

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During the summer, university staff cleaned and sanitized buildings, and installed signage and sanitation stations across campus. We inventoried classrooms to learn how many can accommodate social distancing. We began monitoring campus wastewater — an early marker of infections — and examined air-handling systems.

We have set up mandatory, free testing of all faculty, staff and students coming to campus. During the summer, our University Health Center began collecting nasal swab samples. Thousands more are now coming in as people arrive on campus. The University of Maryland-Baltimore and the Institute for Genome Research analyzes the results. Those testing positive must isolate or quarantine and we have set aside space for students to do that.

Each day, before coming to campus, we ask employees to check for fever and other signs of coronavirus, and to stay home if they feel sick or suspect they’re infected. We update the campus community with an online dashboard about infection rates.

Mainly freshmen are living in residence halls, which we have “de-densified” to 40% occupancy, allowing nearly each student to have a single room to themselves. This experience will help them transition to campus life. Many other returning students are living in nearby communities.

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Everyone on campus must pledge to practice our 4Maryland healthy behaviors — wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and self-monitoring for symptoms. We have enlisted local property owners to monitor activities in their buildings. We also are partnering with the city of College Park, state legislators, and Prince George’s County health officials to enforce Gov. Larry Hogan’s and County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’ rules about large social gatherings.

As a final precaution, the next two weeks of classes are all online, reducing contact during this trial period. Only if the virus remains in check will we begin in-person classes and activities. By September 14, we’ll know if the community is complying and the conditions are right to resume in-person classes. If necessary, we’ll change plans immediately.

To make this work — and avoid pivoting to virtual instruction — everyone on campus must cooperate rigorously with our 4Maryland healthy behaviors. That will be the ultimate test of whether we can rise to the challenge.

Darryll J. Pines (president@umd.edu) is president of the University of Maryland.

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