Report from USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman to USM Board of Regents on Jan. 13

Baltimore, Md. (Jan. 13, 2021)Thank you, Madam Chair. I join you in wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and hopeful New Year, and in thanking all those who serve and sacrifice.

I do want to reflect for a moment on last week’s siege of the U.S. Capitol. Along with all of you, I watched the violence unfold. I saw the symbols and slogans of white supremacy, bigotry, and hatred. I heard the calls for the assassination of our top leaders and the overthrow of our government. And I felt what we all felt: revulsion, anger, deep sadness and shame.

I still feel all those things. And I believe that healing cannot happen unless justice is won; that unity comes only when violent division is put down. But when surrounded by so much darkness, I find it useful to look for the light. My light is the cause to which we’re all devoted: public higher education.

The insurrection last week led many of us in higher ed—myself included—to talk about our role in defending our constitutional principles; our role in preparing students for informed and ethical citizenship; our role in protecting—and perfecting—American democracy.

Andrew Delbanco at Columbia University said: “The only protection against demagoguery is education—not ideological indoctrination, not technical training, but humane education that helps people grasp the experience of others different from themselves.”

Macalister College President Brian Rosenberg said: “The fundamental job of the college or university is to teach students to distinguish the true from the untrue, fact from opinion, evidence from insistence.”

It’s clear we have a lot of work to do. But as I said in my statement last Wednesday, I believe that, as a nation, we can move forward. Because I see in the students of this University System the next generation of leaders committed to our democracy—committed to George Washington’s “great experiment.” I see them working every day for equity, for racial justice, and for meaningful change through committed civic action.

Democracy requires constant tending and constant vigilance. From all of us. I thank everyone at the System who’s dedicated to exactly that.

Of course, civil unrest isn’t the only challenge we face. COVID cases are spiking, and our response to this surge as we prepare for spring will be critical.

Our USM institutions plan to operate during the spring semester, beginning Jan. 25, much as they did last fall. That means they’ll rely on campus de-densification and, to a significant degree, on distance learning.

For those who do come to campus, we’ll enforce the same strict public health measures we did last semester: mask wearing, physical distancing, etc. The literature supports the fact that the principal way to control disease spread is through our day-to-day, decidedly low-tech behaviors: wearing a mask, washing our hands, keeping away from each other. It’s not revolutionary, but it is effective. And we’re confident that it’s our continued fidelity to these practices—by our students, faculty, and staff—that will allow us to sustain our de-densified, hybrid model of teaching and learning this spring. Of course, all of our universities will continue to work closely with their local health departments as they manage positive cases.

And all of this vigilance will be buttressed by testing. You’ll recall that, in the fall, our universities used PCR tests for semester-long surveillance testing. That’s the periodic testing of randomized samples of students to gauge disease prevalence.

PCR tests are highly accurate, but they do have a drawback: They depend on offsite labs for processing, meaning it takes 24–36 hours to get results back. Last semester, if we got a positive result, we’d isolate the student, and contact tracing would begin. This testing protocol allowed us to identify and manage COVID cases during a period of relatively low positivity.

But now, as we’re faced with a dramatically higher prevalence rate—locally and nationally—we must implement more aggressive testing protocols. And there are two basic components to what we consider “more aggressive”: 1) more frequent testing; and 2) faster return of results.

While there’s no “perfect” testing protocol for every campus, the quickly developing literature indicates that twice-a-week testing with rapid antigen tests and immediate follow-up—meaning isolation and confirmation testing—is desirable. Adding this capacity to our testing regimen will enable quicker management and control of COVID spread. And so we’re grateful to the Maryland Department of Health, which has provided the USM more than 100,000 BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests to use at the beginning of the spring semester.

The universities are now designing plans to address both testing frequency and result turnaround time. We’ll be reviewing those plans in the next week or so, as we prepare for the upcoming semester.

Concurrent with this work on testing is our work to support the state’s vaccination effort, and I can’t overstate how complex and difficult this work is. So I’m enormously grateful to Senior Vice Chancellor Jo Boughman for heading up this massive project. I’ll turn it over to Jo.

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Contact: Mike Lurie
Phone: 301.445.2719