Statement by USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman: Aug. 26 Special Meeting of Board of Regents

Baltimore, Md. (Aug. 26, 2020) -- Thank you, Madam Chair. I’m happy that we’re together this week, because it’s a pivotal one for the University System. Four of our universities have already begun their fall semester, and several more that begin at the end of the month have started the move-in process.

It was never in question that this semester would look far different from any before it. And I thought I might show you how different it really is. In this piece produced by the NBC affiliate in Washington, we see what freshman move-in looks like this year at Bowie State University, which begins classes on August 31.

President Breaux, thank you for your safe and thoughtful approach to move-in this fall. It’s an approach mirrored by every residential university within the System, and it’s emblematic of the enormously hard work undertaken by leaders, faculty, and staff Systemwide. I can’t overstate how much effort has gone into our fall planning—how many hours of work; how many sleepless nights. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s spent the last five months preparing for exactly this—a safe and cautious return.

While Bowie’s early success is the experience of many of our universities, it doesn’t mean that we’ve encountered no challenges. As you know, this morning, Towson University President Kim Schatzel announced that the school would pivot to online-only instruction for the remainder of the semester. This is after a sample of 627 baseline COVID tests conducted last week returned 55 positive results. Another batch over the weekend returned 11 positive cases. Follow-up contact tracing—undertaken with the Baltimore County Health Department—could find no connection among the cases, no common gathering or source.

And so in consultation with local health officials and with System experts and leaders, President Schatzel made the difficult decision to move fully online. Given that 85 percent of Towson’s courses are already being delivered online, the educational transition for students and faculty should be relatively smooth.

I do understand how disappointing this is for everyone at Towson, especially for the students who had an opportunity to live and learn on campus. And yet, counterintuitively, what this incident has shown is that our plans are working. Our plans are working as intended. Towson followed its data.

But that simple statement belies a continuum of intensive steps the university undertook to protect the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and neighbors. Towson faithfully de-densified its campus, and put online the courses that can effectively be taught remotely. Towson executed baseline testing, as mandated by the System, requiring that students and employees be tested by university officials in advance of the fall start or show proof of a negative result. This step was essential at Towson, preventing COVID-positive individuals from accessing the campus. Towson collected and reported its testing data, and worked with the county health department on contact tracing. And, finally, upon review of its data and community COVID conditions—and in consultation with local health officials and System experts—Towson swiftly adjusted its path forward for fall.

Of course, this well-reasoned pivot at one of the System’s schools might induce some to ask why we’re not compelling a pivot for all of them. And here I point to our System’s diversity of institutions—just as I did several months ago when we first began planning for fall instruction. This spring, I talked about how different our universities are from one another—in their size, type, and location; in the students they serve; in the nature of their missions and their work.

That heterogeneity influenced how we planned for instruction this fall. We knew that what worked for one institution wouldn’t necessarily work for another; that conditions on one campus wouldn’t mirror those on a campus 200 miles away; that an outbreak, for instance, in Frostburg wouldn’t compel action in College Park.

And so instead of walking in lockstep, the System set baseline expectations that all USM universities must meet. De-densify campuses to the greatest extent possible. Reduce in-person classes. Encourage telework for all employees who can carry out their jobs remotely. Require baseline testing for all on-campus students and employees, and follow-up testing for residential students and those regularly coming to campus. Conduct sample testing periodically throughout the semester, and symptomatic testing for students showing signs of the disease. Require daily symptom self-monitoring and reporting. Mandate physical distancing and mask-wearing, with consequence for non-compliance. And report data to the public—for instance, tests conducted, positive results, positivity rates and trends, on-campus isolation and quarantine beds available.

And, this is important, every institution must work closely—daily or near-daily—with local health officials and consult with them on campus conditions and university response. Those monitored conditions include indicators similar to those I just mentioned—those reported out to the campus community: positive cases, positivity rates, trend data—along with the university’s ability to contain virus spread. Community conditions are also being monitored: local rates and trends in positivity; community hospital admissions; the jurisdiction’s ability to screen and test symptomatic people and conduct contact tracing.

Based on the presenting data, universities might implement a range of responding actions—anything from increasing education in disease prevention practices, to ramping up testing, to further reducing density levels in classrooms and dorms, to temporarily closing campus buildings, to pivoting—for a week, a month, a semester—to online-only instruction and mandatory telework.

I’ve said from the beginning that our campuses will NOT be COVID-free. It’s imperative that we have a close working relationship with our health departments so that, together, we can make quick and judicious decisions in the best interests of our people and our communities. 

This approach draws on the strength of our System—our ability to convene our universities for collaboration and sharing; to borrow institutional expertise and capacity; and to establish baseline uniformity in our protocols to prevent, monitor, and manage this disease.

But the approach allows, too, for campus data, campus conditions to have the last say. Our universities believe that the safety measures they’ve implemented will enable them to manage the risk of an outbreak. It’s early days, but their positivity rates—right now—bear that out.

Still, let me be clear: Conditions can change. Should the data at any university stop supporting in-person instruction, its leader will make the same decision that President Schatzel did today.

We can make this pivot, should it come. As it stands, the USM is already largely online. Our four non-residential institutions—UB, UMB, UMCES, and UMGC—will require no adjustment to their fall plans. Our largest institution, College Park, will begin the semester with a two-week period of online instruction. Our second largest university, Towson, is making the transition to remote learning now. And our third largest residential university, UMBC, is delivering fully 90 percent of its courses remotely. So this pivot to online is not dramatic as it sounds. It’s doable—if that’s where the data lead.

But in the meantime, our universities want to give their students a rich academic experience, especially those students for whom education is best accomplished on campus and in person—pandemic or no. As College Park President Darryll Pines said to his campus, we want to rise to the challenge of managing a virus that will likely be with us for some time. Our institutions want to accomplish their missions and serve their students while keeping their people, their neighbors, their communities safe.

These are certainly aims worth striving for.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719