Dear University of Maryland community,
Over the past several weeks, we have communicated with you many times about such important matters as COVID-19 testing, healthy behaviors, and student conduct expectations. We announced the postponement of all fall intercollegiate athletics and a two-week delay in the resumption of undergraduate in-person instruction. There has also been a dizzying amount of information in the media about case counts and positivity rates at other leading universities, and the availability of testing nationally, in the State of Maryland, and right here in Prince George's County.
A Challenging Time for All of Us
I understand all of this can be overwhelming. I know many of you -- students, faculty, and staff alike -- face uncertainty in your own personal and professional lives. Some of you are anxious to return to school and work, to grasp onto some sense of renewed normalcy. Studies, including a survey of our incoming class, show that a significant majority of students want to return to campus. At the same time, a significant number of faculty and staff report unease at returning to campus. I have heard passionate and compelling arguments from advocates on both sides of this issue. And through it all, we are actively listening to public health officials, as our knowledge of the virus expands in real-time.
I am writing to you today to share how we have made decisions about the fall semester and the considerations that will shape how we make future decisions. I reiterate to you today our promise to be transparent in our decision-making, and to strive to keep all of you informed as we move forward together.
Where We Are Today
It is our hope and expectation that the fall semester will be a combination of in-person, hybrid and online instruction with appropriate, physically-distanced academic opportunities for our students. We are pursuing this approach because we believe that the full richness of a University journey comes from an on-campus environment, where a community of scholars, students and staff unite for an academic, research, residential, social, and athletic experience. Faculty, staff and students have been working together for months to make every accommodation to make this a reality, including:
- Reducing the number of people on our campus, notably through significantly lower levels of occupancy in our residence halls, classrooms and laboratories.
- Preparing our facilities for use, including cleaning and disinfecting, posting signage of behavior requirements, and reducing the occupancy of academic, research, and social spaces.
- Innovating the delivery of academic instruction, awarding hundreds of grants to faculty to create exciting new interactive ways of teaching and learning, and offering students the option to complete the fall semester fully online.
- Commencing community-wide testing of all students, faculty and staff who are returning to campus. This effort is critical to our understanding of the prevalence of the virus on our campus.
- Underscoring the importance of our collective behaviors, because the success of our fall semester quite frankly depends on it. We are working with the surrounding community on effective monitoring of behaviors and have developed appropriately stringent consequences for non-compliance.
- Delaying undergraduate in-person instruction until September 14. This will allow us to analyze testing results to help us make informed, data-driven decisions about the fall semester.
These are just a few of the prudent and necessary measures we have taken in preparation for the fall semester. Now, as the first day of classes nears, how will we meet these challenges?
Here is what every member of our community should expect: some members of our community will test positive for COVID-19. And some members will fall short of our expectations of healthy behaviors. Our approach to the fall semester does not rest on unrealistic expectations of a zero percent positivity rate and a 100 percent compliance rate. Our approach does, however, depend heavily on shared community responsibility.
Our decision to resume and maintain in-person instruction, our decision to continue to house students on campus, and our decision to continue to offer on-campus social opportunities will rest on a number of key factors, including, but not limited to, the following:
- We will follow all state and local health criteria. As a proud part of the state of Maryland and Prince George's County, we will adhere to any health measures they implement.
- We will actively track the metrics contained in our recently-released COVID-19 Campus Dashboard, including positivity rate, number of weekly new cases, and availability of quarantine and isolation space. It is important to note that our decisions will not rely on any single data point. Rather, we will be looking for the trajectory and trend of collective metrics to guide future decisions. Active, continual testing of our campus community is a critical component of this ongoing assessment of virus conditions on our campus.
- We will actively evaluate where and how the virus is being spread. A cluster of positive cases in a single residence hall (or floor of a residence hall) will require different action than a more dispersed cluster of cases.
- We will continually assess the availability of tests and of personal protective equipment (PPE) to test and care for our community.
- And, importantly, we will consider how effectively the prescribed healthy behaviors are being adopted. I simply cannot stress this point enough: The single most important action each of you can take is consistently adhering to our 4 Maryland guidelines to wear a face-covering at all times indoors, and outdoors when others are nearby, wash hands frequently, practice physical distancing, and stay home when you are sick.
Why Reopen Our Physical Campus?
I have heard the argument that higher education decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic are driven either by safety or money. I do not agree. It is possible to prioritize health and safety in decision-making, while still working to provide our students an academically and socially rich on-campus experience and preserving the jobs and livelihoods of people who have served our campus community for years. We have consistently made decisions that put health first. We purposefully reduced the occupancy of our residence halls. We supported the Big Ten Conference decision to postpone fall sports. We have moved to fully online education for the first two weeks. And we invested heavily in free campus-wide testing for every member of our community. Collectively, these decisions illustrate how much we have prioritized the health, safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff, even at significant expense.
The University now faces a sizable deficit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have fought hard to minimize the impact on the livelihoods of our faculty and staff. When we transitioned to a fully online environment last spring, hundreds of union and non-union staff were left unable to work because they needed to be physically on campus to perform their duties. And yet we continued to pay their full salaries. Because this is not about money. It's about each one of you.
You are the University of Maryland! Almost two-thirds of our campus budget goes to salaries for thousands of hard-working staff and faculty across our campus -- the very same people who help make Maryland the extraordinary community that we are all so proud of.
However, if our deficit continues to climb, our ability to continue to pay all staff will be severely diminished. The deep layoffs, furloughs, and salary reductions that we have fought so hard to minimize would become inevitable.
Our decisions have been, and will continue to be, guided by the shared governance principles adopted by the University Senate related to managing our budgetary shortfalls and operating our campus during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- The University must protect the health and safety of its students, faculty, and staff.
- The University must protect the most vulnerable members of our community.
- The University must ensure the research, teaching and service missions go forward.
- The University administrators must permit flexibility for units to manage any financial cuts locally.
- The University must be transparent about the effects of COVID-19 on our campus community.
So, when people ask me why I want to reopen our physical campus, this is what I tell them. Because I believe we must rise to the challenge of living with a virus that will likely be with us for some time. Because I believe our students deserve an academically and socially rich on-campus experience. Because I want to protect the livelihoods of our amazing faculty and staff who depend on the University for their economic well-being. And because I believe we can do all of this while we maintain our priority on the health and safety of all campus citizens.
I have faith that we have put the strongest possible plan in place. It's now up to us. Together. TerrapinSTRONG.
Darryll J. Pines
President, University of Maryland