USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman on the Fall 2022 Semester
Baltimore, Md. (Aug. 22, 2022) – Thank you, Linda. And good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be able to speak with you just a week before students resume their classes.
As always, there’s a lot of excitement around the start of the school year, but this year—like the last couple—there’s some apprehension, too. And that’s valid. Because COVID isn’t over. We know that.
But with the CDC further relaxing its guidelines, and with this disease moving into a more manageable endemic phase, we do forecast a semester that, if all goes well, will be pretty close to our pre-pandemic normal.
Having said that, I want you to know that we have our eyes on two diseases this fall—not just one. Last week, we had our first diagnosed case of monkeypox within the System, and I’ll get to that virus in a couple of minutes. But I want to start with COVID.
As you know—absent a declared public health emergency and with very high vaccination rates sustained across our campuses—we’ve lifted the Systemwide vaccine requirement, allowing our universities to individually decide their vaccination policies as they continue to work with state and local public health officials.
I do want to make a point about the vaccine mandate we issued in April of 2021. That requirement put us in our current position of strength. It was the right decision. And my opinion is bolstered by a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study suggests that colleges’ vaccination mandates had a substantial effect on county-level COVID infections and deaths, likely reducing total U.S. deaths by about 5 percent over the course of the fall 2021 semester.
That’s due to what the study authors call spillover effect; how the mandate affected health outcomes in communities surrounding a campus; how it helped a generally younger, generally healthier population protect the rest of the community by inhibiting transmission to neighbors. We’ve said for a long time that we have a responsibility to the communities that our universities call home. And so there’s nothing more powerful to me than these data showing how we lived up to that responsibility.
All that said, we’ve had another principle guiding us throughout the pandemic: that we would respect the heterogeneity of our institutions and their authority to do what’s best for their students, their employees, and their local communities. That autonomy means different protocols for different institutions.
So, while most universities have followed the System’s lead and lifted their vaccination requirement for the upcoming academic year, there are some schools—for instance, UMBC and Bowie State—where vaccination is required for residential students. UMB, where clinical settings are the norm, is requiring vaccination for all students. College Park, our largest campus, with very high density, is requiring vaccination for all students, faculty, and staff.
In terms of testing, we have rapid antigen tests readily available across the System. Some universities are distributing the tests to students, and some are making them available at their Health Centers. A couple of our universities require a negative test to return to school. A couple more require a negative test for residential students.
Because all of our universities had rather extensive testing capacity during the thick of the pandemic, we know they can reestablish that capacity quickly. Some of our universities—for instance, Towson and UMES—had set up expansive testing facilities last year. While those facilities aren’t operational right now, they can be made operational very quickly should cases rise.
Masking is generally optional at our universities, except in health or clinical settings. For example, UMBC has made the decision to require masks in classrooms, and I understand that this was a student-driven recommendation. College Park is finalizing its decision at this time. (The University of Maryland, College Park has since announced it is recommending masks be worn indoors but will not require them except in health-care settings. More information can be found here.)
Our universities are being judicious about large gatherings. Some are planning outdoor events whenever possible, and spacing indoor events to reduce density. They’re liberally offering masks to participants.
QUARANTINE & ISOLATION
The new CDC guidance on quarantine does affect our operations and our capacity. With the CDC no longer recommending quarantine for COVID exposures, we need far less quarantine space than we did before. Most of the reserved rooms would be needed on a short-term basis as students await PCR results.
Each university does have beds reserved for isolation. However, most universities are asking students to stay or return home if they’re symptomatic or test positive for COVID. Therefore, the small number of on-campus rooms reserved for isolation are for students who cannot easily get home—for instance, international students or students with unreliable housing. If a student is in on-campus housing that allows separation from others—for instance, an apartment with an enclosed, unshared bedroom—then that space is adequate for isolation.
In terms of instruction, at this point, we’re planning for courses to be delivered as they were designed to be, whether that’s face-to-face or online or a hybrid format. Of course, if we need to pivot to virtual instruction—for a short period; for an extended period—we can do that. And we can support faculty and students through the transition. We proved that two-and-a-half years ago.
LEADING FROM STRENGTH
We’ve learned a lot from COVID. We learned to work closely with one another—to quickly share information and policies and practices; but more than that, to share the thinking that led us to every decision. We learned the efficacy of making decisions as a System where we could, and offering flexibility where we should. We learned that by being good partners with our local health departments, we can help them do their job, and they can help us do ours.
These are the lessons we’ll apply to our next public health threat, and unfortunately that threat is one we already know. We had our first confirmed case of monkeypox on a USM campus last week. And with the nationwide rate doubling about every two weeks, we can expect to see more.
There is a vaccine for monkeypox. But, as in the early days of COVID, the problem is that there aren’t nearly enough vaccine doses available.
Anyone in a high-risk group is eligible for the vaccine—most commonly, that’s sexually active men who have sex with other men. But the limited availability is hampering access nationwide. So, right now, health authorities are prioritizing the vaccine for those who’ve had a close contact with an infected person.
The vaccine supply issue means doses are not being distributed to college campuses. Fortunately, our local health departments do have some. And fortunately, as I just mentioned, our universities have close relationships with those departments and their people. So we’ll facilitate the vaccination process as best we can for our students to ensure they can get immunized quickly.
Right now, those who are prioritized for testing are those who are symptomatic and those who’ve had a close contact with an infected person. Again, our universities are working closely with county health departments to make sure anyone who needs a test can get one. And in the case of a positive test, we’ll work with health officials to notify that person’s close contacts.
On the education front, our universities are sharing clear and specific information about the monkeypox virus—what it is, what its symptoms are, how it spreads, how to protect yourself. While it’s our responsibility to accurately warn high-risk populations of their susceptibility to the disease, most of us on this call bore witness to America’s indefensible failings during the HIV/AIDS crisis, allowing the identification of risk factors to mutate into the blaming of high-risk groups and behaviors. We won’t allow that to happen within our System.
We understand that those who’ve contracted the virus will need some time away from the classroom, both to isolate and to recuperate from the illness. Just as we have with COVID, we’re asking faculty to be sensitive to those who need to be excused from class. The virus’s impact on instruction and instructional accommodations is something we’re actively discussing right now.
I know these updates on the latest public health emergencies are not how we want to start the school year. But the safety of our people remains top of mind for us, and a successful academic year, by any other measure, depends on that very first one: public safety.
So I thank you for giving me this time. And I’m happy to answer your questions.
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Contact: Mike Lurie