As a spring semester disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close, Maryland universities are thinking about how to reopen their campuses to students in the fall.
During an online forum Monday sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee, leaders of many higher education institutions in the Baltimore area said they are pursuing a hybrid system, which combines in-person instruction with remote learning. The University System of Maryland announced last week that some students will be able to return to campuses in mid-August for in-person learning, but complete course work remotely after Thanksgiving break.
Morgan State University officials also announced that they will reopen for face-to-face classes on Sept. 9, but will conduct remote learning after Thanksgiving break. The university plans to equip 200 classrooms with technology that enables live streaming to offer an option for remote learning, David Wilson, the president of Morgan State, said during the GBC discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education. That way, he said, students can decide between physically going to class or livestreaming the lecture from their rooms if they have health safety concerns.
Maintaining a high degree of flexibility is important when university campuses reopen in the fall, as each student and faculty members will have different needs, the local college officials said.
While maintaining health precautions is a priority for the reopening process at many universities, college officials also stressed that in-person learning and on-campus residency is critical for students’ intellectual and personal growth and cannot be easily substituted with online learning.
“Students are looking for an experience, a place that exudes belonging and caring and not at the expense of academic excellence,” Wilson said.
Representatives from Towson University, Morgan State and Loyola University said that although online classes may work well for mature learners, such as those enrolled in the University of Maryland Global Campus, the collegiate experience for 18- to 23-year-olds is quite different.
It is important to be around different kinds of people and to be exposed to different value systems, Kim Schatzel, the president of Towson, said in the same discussion meeting. Wilson said he views Morgan State primarily as a residential institution.
However, reopening campuses while also ensuring a capacity to meet safety precautions comes with a large cost. Morgan State, Towson University and Loyola have leased off-site locations for student residency in order to reduce student density in dorms as much as possible. Morgan State acquired 200 additional rooms in Baltimore and reduced its housing capacity by 31%.
“We made our decisions realizing that they would have a tremendous fiscal impact on us, but the overall health of our community drove our decisions,” Wilson said.
Jay Perman, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, also expressed concerns about the additional costs of reopening campuses in the fall, but said he was confident that USM will remain stable because of its public support in the past.
The pandemic did not upend the University of Maryland Global Campus, an online state university, as drastically as traditional campuses.
“I don’t think this will be an online vs. onsite dichotomy. I think this will be an affordability issue,” said Javier Miyares, the president of University of Maryland Global Campus. As students become more conscious of debt during the pandemic, Miyares believes that online education will help make college more affordable.
In the midst of the protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, local college officials also discussed what role higher education played in systematic racism.
“Higher education is the way to close that gap,” Perman said. “An important piece of the solution is giving minorities the ability to make the most of their talent.”
Usually the talent is there, he said, but the opportunity is not.