By Kayla Hunt
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Towson University hopes to bring back some in-person instruction next semester although the school expects more than three-quarters of its spring 2021 classes to be held online, according to an email sent to students, faculty and staff Wednesday.
The email sent by university President Kim Schatzel said the first two weeks of the spring semester will operate fully online except for certain courses that require lab, clinical or experiential work. Spring courses would revert to a mix of online, hybrid and face-to-face beginning Feb. 8, Schatzel said, adding that she expects 85% of instruction to be done remotely. Faculty members will be given the ability to choose the modality of their courses.
All classes conducted during the minimester, which runs from Jan. 4 to Jan. 22, will be taught remotely.
“As we have since February, we will continue to put health and safety first and foremost, adhering to all local, state and federal guidelines,” Schatzel said in her email. “In addition to our continuous efforts to address the pandemic and to keep our community safe, we have also been observing and discussing the variety of approaches taken by other institutions, learning from their successes and challenges.”
The amount of quarantine space that will be provided on campus has doubled to 196 beds, Schatzel said. She said the university will continue the health and safety protocols that were implemented for the fall semester, which require employees to have a negative COVID-19 PCR test result 10 days before arriving on campus. The university also requires everyone on campus to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Guests in residence halls are prohibited.
TU faculty and staff will continue to adjust work schedules and work from home whenever possible, the email said. The university will also continue random testing of those on campus during the spring semester.
“TU faculty and staff have continued to demonstrate how much they truly care about each and every one of our students,” Schatzel said in the email. “From providing support to the student emergency fund to finding creative solutions for unprecedented issues, the care for our Tigers is evident.”
Reaction to the announcement was mixed among students, faculty and staff who were interviewed today.
Tina Kelleher, the secretary of the Towson University American Association of University Professors, said she is concerned that the university could repeat its experience from the fall, when school officials were forced to cancel in-person classes just a few days after the semester began on Aug. 24 because of more than 60 positive tests of COVID-19 in one weekend.
“The administration cites what they have ‘learned’ but then still does not concede what nobody knows yet,” Kelleher said. “For instance, we still do not know enough about if there will be new strains of the virus manifesting this winter; flu season will surely complicate matters further as well. COVID survivors sometimes indicate having other side effects and unexplained lingering symptoms, too. Ultimately, the effectiveness of any vaccine will not be known for some time yet, and we have yet to experience this pandemic full-blown in winter.”
Schatzel said the university has had “very low rates of infection” among members of the staff. She said the University Health Center has tested 14,500 members of the TU community, adding that the nearly 700 tests that have been done since the start of random testing has brought no positive cases of the virus.
“Sentinel testing of a randomly selected sample of our on-campus population every two weeks will continue to further allow us to monitor the health of our campus community and manage the presence of the virus within the TU community,” Schatzel said in her email.
But Kelleher said the university risks spreading the virus beyond its campus if students and professors are brought back too quickly. She said many researchers and scientists – including those who teach at Towson – have said that a vaccine will not be ready for widespread use until April 2021 at the earliest.
“I particularly feel concern for impacts on the elderly and other vulnerable populations in the area community,” Kelleher said. “Asymptomatic transmission can happen rapidly and would spread into the broader community, no matter how protected and ‘tested’ those on campus may feel.”
Others who were interviewed said they believed school administrators were doing their best under tough circumstances. While some said they still needed more information before making a judgment about the school’s decision for the spring, they nevertheless believe the community will make it through the pandemic in good shape.
“I feel confused about the university’s announcement because there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered,” said Joshua Sainviller, a senior at Towson majoring in psychology. “I think that if everyone follows protocol we should be fine.”
Joyce Garczynski, an assistant university librarian for development and communication, said it has been tough being a working parent during the pandemic but she appreciates the flexibility that Towson has given her.
“I feel like I have a lot to learn to be a better online teacher, but I hope I will only get better with practice,” Garczynski said. “I’m certainly happy to have the opportunity to be able to keep trying.”
A few students voiced their concerns on Twitter in regard to Towson’s plan to move forward with some students living on-campus.
“They’re doing everything they can to make something that’s actually not safe seem appealing and decently safe,” wrote @nicegirlantics in response to a user stating that moving on campus in the spring is “tempting.”
According to the email, university residence halls will house 2,300 students in the spring, which represents 30% of the residence halls’ capacity.
The move-in process will be completed before classes commence on Jan. 25 and will be by appointment only.
“I’m excited to be back on campus for my senior year, as long as people know how to act,” said Zachary Pounds, a resident assistant at Towson. “I definitely think it’s possible that the same thing will happen as last semester but I’m optimistic we’ll finish out strong.”
Kelleher said TU faculty and students have been resilient throughout the pandemic. She said faculty understand that remote learning is good for some students but not others, and she added that faculty are doing everything they can to accommodate student needs.
Pounds suggested that there should be a rotating modality that would include a week of in-person instruction and then a week of remote learning to assist with sanitization.
Garczynski said she is happy to know the current plans for the spring but understands that the circumstances can quickly change.
“I feel for university administrators because it has to be tough to make decisions in this environment and so many competing concerns,” Garczynski said. “It helps to know what the plans are, but so much can change as the virus changes.”