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USM chancellor: Here’s what we learned from an on-campus semester | COMMENTARY

Jaheem Williams works on his laptop, with classmates spaced out behind him, during an oral communication class in a lecture hall in the Martin Luther King Jr. Communication Arts Center at Bowie State University on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 in Bowie, Md. (Brian Krista/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Jaheem Williams works on his laptop, with classmates spaced out behind him, during an oral communication class in a lecture hall in the Martin Luther King Jr. Communication Arts Center at Bowie State University on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 in Bowie, Md. (Brian Krista/The Baltimore Sun via AP) (Brian Krista/AP)

As the University System of Maryland (USM) concludes its fall semester and looks to the spring, it’s instructive to examine our approach to on-campus education thus far, particularly given the extraordinary amount of work and cost this approach entailed.

Some believe that students should never have been on campus in the first place, that all universities should have done what many — most, in fact — did: abandon plans for in-person instruction, deliver courses remotely and keep campuses closed. But there are lessons to be learned from those of us who stayed the course, successfully completing an on-campus semester.

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First, clarification on what “on-campus” means: Over the summer, a narrative formed around “online” versus “on-campus,” positioning the two approaches as mutually exclusive, when, of course, they’re not. Less than half of the USM’s total student population was on campus this semester. The majority of classes weren’t taught in a traditional face-to-face format. Some were remote, and some were hybrid, with face-to-face sessions supplementing online work. This de-densifying of our campuses — together with a regimen of COVID testing, symptom monitoring and disease prevention protocols — was central to our ability to control virus spread.

Still, we knew from the outset that our campuses wouldn’t be COVID-free — and they weren’t. Throughout the semester, USM universities adjusted their approaches to in-person learning based on fluctuating conditions on their campuses and in their communities. A few of our universities pivoted to online-only instruction ahead of the Thanksgiving break amid a spike in cases statewide.

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Yet, through it all, we got campus positivity rates under control and well under the rates of the counties in which the universities sit. Regular reporting kept students, faculty, staff and neighbors apprised of disease prevalence and risk. Students who wanted an on-campus experience, by and large, followed our rules for having one. And state and local health departments were our constant collaborators and guides.

None of this was easy, and none of it was perfect. We’ve compiled hundreds of lessons that will refine our approach to the spring semester. But knowing back in August what I know now, I’d do it again. Because higher education — public higher education — is an essential business. And for many of the students we serve, our “business” must remain open.

Some learning requires in-person interaction or demonstration, in-person performance or observation. To become a nurse, an engineer, a dancer, a cellist, a speech-language pathologist, there must be some in-person work. Lab courses, studio courses, clinical rotations, practicums, experiential learning of all kinds — they require some face-to-face hours.

Then, too, some of our students need the intensive supports that a campus provides: students with nowhere else to go — homeless students, international students; students who are unsafe or stressed financially; students without access to technology or connectivity or even a quiet place to study. On-campus supports are especially critical to those hit hardest by the COVID crisis: low-income students, first-generation students, students of color. Right now, higher education is hemorrhaging our most vulnerable students, and we might never get them back.

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It’s true we can accomplish our educational mission while we’re apart. We’ve spent months innovating instructional design, modifying courses for distance delivery and helping faculty strengthen their online teaching skills. Still, we serve our students better when we can adapt our strategies and services to their needs, when we can be there — in person — for the students who need us to be.

I doubt any university now finishing up an on-campus semester would claim victory. This isn’t my “mission accomplished” moment. Far from it. As we look ahead to the spring, hopeful that a vaccine might help us prevent infection, we know that we’re nevertheless up against a powerful virus whose trend line is spiking. We know that our best efforts in this fight against COVID might not be enough.

But I’m glad we’ve stuck our necks out — not just for our students, but for the many universities opening up in spring that will learn from our experience this fall. I’m glad that we’ve tried hard to help the students who most need our support, and that we put our faith in them, knowing they want in-person learning enough not to risk losing it. I’m glad, too, for the trust our students have placed in us. They remind us every day why we took on this work in the first place.

Dr. Jay Perman (chancellor@usmd.edu) is chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

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