Higher learning institutions in St. Mary’s County are canceling in-person classes and limiting people on campus as officials begin precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the public school system isn’t looking to close, at least as of Wednesday morning.
A handful of Marylanders have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, a family of viruses, some of which can infect people and animals, named for crownlike spikes on their surfaces. The viruses can cause the common cold or more severe diseases such as SARS, MERS and COVID-19, the latter of which first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.
With almost daily increases in infected Marylanders, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared a state of emergency last week. Maryland had 12 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning. Although no known cases had yet hit St. Mary’s as of that time, the county has begun responding.
The St. Mary’s County commissioners allocated $40,000 from their emergency reserve on Tuesday to the local health department to prepare for potential cases. The public school system has canceled all out-of-state field trips, except for trips to Washington, D.C., and “that may change,” Superintendent Scott Smith said.
D.C. public schools announced Wednesday morning they are moving a professional development day to Monday, March 16, canceling classes for students that day so educators can ensure they are equipped to support distance learning, if that is implemented in the District. The same was announced for nearby Fairfax County public schools in Virginia.
Smith said Wednesday morning at a school board meeting that they were going to request a state waiver to change the last day of school, which is currently set for Monday, June 15, since the local school system did not need to use any of its five built-in snow days. However, Smith said the board will now hold off on that request, based on the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.
He told the room the school system is in constant communication with the county emergency operating center and the local health department. He added that schools have ramped up sanitation since the flu season started by, for instance, wiping down constantly touched places with disinfectant.
Smith acknowledged the closures of college campuses but assured they do not have the same protocols.
“School systems are not universities. We have much more responsibilities,” he said, later adding how half the county is directly impacted by the public schools. “The decision to close a school or to quarantine, that has repercussions.”
Smith said they do not make decisions lightly when it comes to the coronavirus.
Colleges suspend face-to-face classes
Southern Maryland’s colleges have made the decision this week to transition to online classes.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland officials told students to not return to campus after spring break as a preventative measure related to the outbreak of the coronavirus, which was officially designated by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic Wednesday. This follows a similar decision announced Tuesday by the University System of Maryland for other public colleges and universities in the state.
Spring break for St. Mary’s College starts next week on March 16, and an email from President Tuajuanda Jordan on Wednesday said the college will transition to online or remote instruction when the week-long spring break ends. Face-to-face classes will be suspended for at least two weeks after the break.
The College of Southern Maryland will also transition to online classes starting March 16, according to its site, and employees have been briefed on the requirements for increased teleworking.
Ben Latigo, the interim executive director of University System of Maryland at Southern Maryland, told The Enterprise earlier this week that online classes will last between March 16 and at least April 10 at that institution located in California. They plan to reevaluate the decision April 12. He added USMSM was making plans for some staff to work from home.
Latigo said the California campus, formerly known as the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, followed the USM’s protocols. However, they have to coordinate with the nine other colleges that provide services to the campus. The majority are able to convert to online classes, Latigo said, but some classes, like engineering, require in-person labs.
“The plan is to do labs at the center so long as they can meet social distancing required,” he said.
All three institutions will not be completely shut down.
Latigo said community meetings and events at USMSM have been suspended for at least the remainder of March and training events are suspended until April 30. Meetings that would have 300 participants, often training by Naval Air Station Patuxent River or defense contractors, need to be reduced to no more than 90 attendees.
St. Mary’s College faculty and staff are expected to work normal schedules on campus, or they must receive approval otherwise.
However, large events scheduled between March 16 and April 3 have been canceled or postponed, as well as the Mark Twain Lecture, a presidential lecture series and Seahawk Day. Home sports games will proceed, but without spectators allowed on campus. All of the college’s sports games in Maryland, home or away, will proceed, but out-of-state games are postponed.
“Students should plan to not return to campus but to continue their education through online/remote instruction from March 23 – April 3, 2020. Students who are approved to remain on campus during spring break must limit their travel to a 50-mile radius of the campus through April 3,” Jordan’s email to the college community states.
The email adds that all residential students have to vacate by 5 p.m. on March 13 and stay away until April 4 at noon. And anyone who participates in a spring break event cannot return to campus afterward. Those who wish to stay on campus were to request permission through a form submitted by the morning of March 13.
Online platforms for instruction include the college’s Blackboard Learning Management System and Go-to-Meeting where students will be given specific academic assignments and directions. The instruction will follow the normal course’s syllabus.
Mike Bruckler, spokesperson for St. Mary’s College, declined on Wednesday two interview requests for employees of the college. Jordan did not return phone calls by The Enterprise earlier this week.
CSM was still evaluating moving forward with conferences, competitions and other on-campus events, including access to the fitness facilities, as of Wednesday afternoon. Most sporting events will go on except a trip for the softball team. The St. Charles Children’s Learning Center at the La Plata campus will remain open.
The announcement comes after multiple Maryland colleges, including USM schools, have also halted in-person classes after spring break.
St. Mary’s College announced last week to suspend all international travel for those studying abroad and some domestic travel to states like California, Florida and Washington. CSM has also prohibited college-related international travel and is enforcing prior authorization for domestic travel.
“Anyone who returns or arrives to a CSM location from a location with a CDC Level 3 travel warning for COVID-19, must notify the college at least 48 hours prior to your return/arrival to the college and self-isolate using guidance from your local health department. Most self-isolations will last 14 days,” the community college stated on its website.