Colleges, university prepare for classes amid COVID-19

Autumn Layman, of Cumberland, enters the Financial Aid Office at Allegany College of Maryland. A stop sign on the door notifies people that because of COVID-19 restrictions, only two people are allowed in the office lobby at a time.

CUMBERLAND — As colleges and universities prepare for the arrival of students back on campus for the fall semester, questions surrounding protocols and how everything will work out only bring more questions.

In order to provide some insight into how regional institutions are preparing, local college presidents agreed to give some perspective on what is going into having the fall semester move forward.

Testing has proven to be a fluid situation and schools are having to come up with strategies within their limits.

On July 30, the University System of Maryland passed down requirements that everyone in the system must be tested for COVID-19 at the beginning of the fall semester. Frostburg State University will offer tests in the Cordts PE Center through Sunday for those unable to get tested before coming to campus. Classes start Monday.

“We have already been in discussions with the University of Maryland-Baltimore and they have assured us that they have enough testing kits to work with us and test everybody at the beginning of the semester,” said Ronald Nowaczyk, FSU president.

FSU plans to do surveillance testing during the semester. The idea is to collect a stratified sample that is representative of the university population through testing about 5% of the campus population every two weeks, which means some may be tested more than once throughout the semester. Testing for the program will be provided by Aeon Technologies, which received a bid to do so from Allegany County government.

West Virginia University Potomac State College is taking a similar approach for its Keyser campus, with the original batch of testing, which will take place over three days throughout the week and be conducted by the Mineral County Health Department and West Virginia National Guard. 

“Afterwards then, we will be working with the local hospital,” said college President Jennifer Orlikoff. “We will be doing some batch surveillance testing; we are going to be doing surveillance testing throughout the semester just to double-check that we are headed in the right direction.”

Allegany College of Maryland will test students at Willowbrook Woods, the college's on-campus student housing complex, because it is a congregate living situation, said President Cynthia Bambara. Employees sign in and complete a morning symptom check sheet, attesting they are symptom-free and will also have students in-class do something similar.

Garrett College has been working with the Garrett County Health Department to do daily self-assessments for faculty, staff, students and visitors prior to coming to campus for the semester, which is set to start Sept. 9, said Richard Midcap, college president.

“We are also in pretty constant contact with the Maryland Higher Education Commission to see if there is anything else they are going to recommend,” he said. 

Steps to keep students safe

While the early stages of the pandemic knocked everyone off campus and online, Midcap said he thinks the experience prepared the college to tackle the upcoming fall semester.

“We have created synchronous sections that meet on Zoom and Microsoft Teams. We are piloting a new course option we are calling face-to-face, which when you are taking a two-day class, half of the class will be in person one day and the other will Zoom in and then they will flip,” said Midcap. The goal is to get class occupancy to 50%. 

ACM added signage indicating entrances and exits, will require masks and spent upward of $60,000 on medical-grade cleaning supplies and has a UV sanitation cart, among other things, said Bambara. The college will start classes Aug. 24.

As well, the community college will have six different learning options, with most being online or livestreamed, and the face-to-face instruction, like labs and clinicals, where students have to work in close proximity, will have personal protection equipment. 

For Potomac State, being in Mineral County is why it’s opting to start the semester next Wednesday while WVU’s Morgantown campus delayed its opening until Aug. 26.

“Morgantown was hoping, by having an extra week, (to) put the precautions in place so that the transmission of the virus would subside. That didn’t apply to us because we are smaller, safer environments and the students weren’t getting infected,” said Orlikoff.

The campus put up plexiglass shields and “de-densified” classrooms down to 50% and will require everyone to wear a mask. As for concerns with off-campus partying, Orlikoff said the university hopes to rely on messaging and the students’ sense of community to convince them to do the right thing.

Nowaczyk voiced a similar priority toward getting students living off-campus to follow social distancing guidelines.

“I am planning, the first weekend that we have students coming back, to be walking through the neighborhoods along with the mayor and also our police chief to talk with students to remind them about behaviors we do not want to see — large social gatherings. If we have those occurring, it will be in violation of our judicial conduct policy, student conduct policy,” he said. “There are residents who may be of the age where they may be in a high-risk group or have medically compromised situations.”

Resuming college experience

The question then becomes, how do the universities plan to ensure their students don’t get bored with normal college pastimes being curbed due to guidelines and restrictions?

At FSU, Nowaczyk said they are considering showing movies in the stadium and scaling up academic support for students struggling with less in-person class time.

At Potomac State, Orlikoff said they will provide Zoom access to student organizations so they can conduct meetings virtually, will put up tents and additional picnic tables around campus for outdoor gatherings, will do virtual trivia and e-sports. For outdoor recreation, they’ll rely on the natural landscape of the area, promoting hiking, biking and kayaking, while holding outdoor fitness classes.

At ACM, Bambara said the student activities center created a virtual student center in the spring. Being a community college, many of its students come from the surrounding area, where they have lives in the local community and don’t necessarily look to it as one does a traditional four-year institution. 

At Garrett, Midcap said the college will have online activities, and will have its fitness center open with half the equipment it had before, following CDC guidelines.

So, what happens if the virus does spread and what would it take for the universities to have to close their classrooms and move back to an online existence?

Monitoring the situation

All four colleges are working with their respective county health departments, letting them help inform their decisions on the safety of their campuses.

“If they felt there was an increased risk here and asked us to either keep students sheltered in place, or to close the institution and go online, we would do that,” said Nowaczyk. “All of our faculty have developed plans for doing either the technology-based learning with some face-to-face or have a version that would be online, so we will be able to switch immediately if we have a situation like we did in March.”

“If we have to shut down a particular classroom, or a building, or if we even need to take the campus offline for a week for a deep cleaning, we are going to be working very closely with them,” said Midcap.

Potomac State will work with health officials at West Virginia University’s Morgantown campus, too, said Orlikoff.

“We will be monitoring the trends, if you will. If suddenly there is a huge spike, that might change things,” she said.

Both FSU and Potomac State plan to finish their semesters prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, to avoid having students coming back to campus after potentially traveling to see family. Garrett will finish the on-campus portion of the semester prior to Thanksgiving, too, but will have virtual classes until Dec. 11. ACM’s class schedule will remain as it has and won’t be shortened.

Follow staff writer Brandon Glass on Twitter @Bglass13.

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