SALISBURY, MD—When Salisbury University students returned to campus in August for the first time since being sent home abruptly last March as a precaution against COVID-19, SU President Charles Wight made them a promise: The University would do its best to let them stay there through the end of the semester in December.
This week, SU came one step closer to keeping that promise as the only USM institution to continue in-person and hybrid classes following Thanksgiving break. The milestone was made possible, in part, due to the University’s aggressive approach to battling the virus’ spread.
“As positivity rates continue to rise in our region, state and nation, the data shows that SU is one of the safest places for our students right now,” said Wight. “The SU community has proven time and time again that it is willing to do what it takes to remain on campus.”
The road to SU’s success in handling the coronavirus was not without bumps. When the University’s weekly testing positivity rate — based on the number of students, faculty and staff who tested positive for the virus out of the total number of tests administered that week — spiked above 5 percent in early September, SU mandated a test the next week of every SU community member on campus, numbering in the thousands.
“That was a trial by fire,” said Eli Modlin, SU chief of staff, who has overseen the University’s COVID-19 efforts. “The testing was also a resounding success. It showed that the positivity rate from the week before was a one-time deviation from the norm. It also eliminated any guesswork as to exactly what the campus’ COVID-19 numbers were, and fortunately, those numbers were low.”
Beyond providing hard data, the all-campus test also allowed SU to analyze how its in-house testing center might stand up to the mass testing anticipated throughout the semester. The center, an outdoor facility on the periphery of the main campus, was staffed by SU community members including Student Health Services personnel, School of Nursing faculty and students, SU athletic trainers, and staff from Student Health Services and the Office of Campus Safety and Environmental Health.
The large number of SU community members being tested at once led to ideas on ways to further streamline the process, which now includes self-swabbing options. (With the onset of colder weather, testing since has moved to indoor locations on campus.) Most using the testing sites are checked in by staff volunteers, take the test and are ready to leave the site in a span of about 5 minutes, a statistic as important for efficiency as it is for encouraging participation across campus.
“We require all students, faculty and staff on campus to have a negative result from an SU-administered test on file every 30 days to maintain building access with their SU Gull Card IDs,” said Modlin. “Providing the opportunity for them to get tested with a minimum time commitment makes it more likely they will continue those monthly tests once they fall into the habit.
“That efficiency also has allowed us to conduct massive number of tests, approximately half the on-campus population every other week” he added, noting that SU has administered over 25,000 free COVID-19 tests since late August — more than eight counties in Maryland have.
Pre- and Post-Testing
It also was important to provide the campus community with a convenient way to schedule their tests. Times and dates available for SU testing center appointments are updated regularly on the University’s COVID-19 website, and appointments are easily made via an online platform.
Through a partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore, test results usually are available in 30-48 hours. Individuals testing negative receive an automated email, while the few who test positive receive a call from Campus Health, a new office established specifically to handle the medical aspects of SU’s COVID-19 response.
Supported by federal funding provided to the University through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Campus Health Office includes a new registered nurse position and a certified nursing assistant position, as well as four support staff reallocated from the SU President’s Office and Office of Administration and Finance. (Funding for the new office also was reallocated from the University’s Government and Community Affairs Office budget: “We invested based on priorities,” Modlin said.)
Once notified of a positive test result, students are given the option of going home to self-isolate or quarantine — allowing the virus time to pass — or relocating to Dogwood Village, a one-story student housing complex used as isolation and quarantine housing for community COVID-19 patients last summer through an agreement with TidalHealth, the parent organization of nearby Peninsula Regional Medical Center.
“One of the lessons we learned early on was that, while most students chose to isolate at home, those who relocated to Dogwood Village felt somewhat cut off from the SU experience for those two weeks,” said Modlin. “We quickly modified our practices to provide more robust wraparound services. Now, in addition to the three meal deliveries they were receiving each day, they also receive regular physical and mental health check-ins from Campus Health, as well as visits three times each week from Student Health Services, providing them with more points of contact and reminding them that SU hasn’t forgotten about them.”
Campus Housing and Residence Life Staff also check in on students in isolation and quarantine regularly through social media.
Employees who test positive receive similar notifications, with instructions to remain off campus for at least two weeks until being cleared by Campus Health to return. Those who are able may choose to telework during those two weeks if they would prefer not to use sick time. Likewise, students who are isolated or quarantined off campus or in Dogwood Village have the option of taking most classes virtually during that time.
Through Campus Health, SU also conducts its own contact tracing following notification of a positive case, in coordination with the Wicomico County Health Department, helping to lessen the health department’s burden and ensure that those testing positive, as well as their contacts, are notified immediately. Students and employees believed to have been in close contact for at least 15 minutes with someone who has tested positive are asked to quarantine off campus — or, in the case of SU students, in Dogwood Village if they prefer — for two weeks.
“Getting the information to these individuals and taking action within less than a day of receiving the results are part of the reason we’ve been able to keep our positivity rates so low,” said Modlin, noting that those rates have been under 1 percent most of the semester.
In-house contact tracing has allowed SU to determine that most of the positive cases on campus have stemmed from a handful of student gatherings. In early September, SU suspended 21 students for violating new COVID-19-related restrictions in the University’s Code of Community Standards (which also include policies requiring faces masks in campus buildings and encouraging physical distancing) by attending gatherings. That, coupled with a citywide order from Acting Salisbury Mayor Julia Glanz several weeks later, restricting private indoor gatherings to 15 people or fewer and outdoor gatherings to 50 or fewer, served as a deterrent for many students who may have considered temporarily skirting that rule.
“The number of reports we’ve received regarding parties on and off campus this semester has been minimal,” said Dr. Dane Foust, SU vice president of student affairs. “By and large, students are following the guidelines we’ve provided to try to give them the safest, best experience possible under these circumstances.”
Beyond COVID-19 Testing
With fewer traditional avenues for socializing outside of classes and academic work, Foust’s division has worked to provide more recreational opportunities for students, especially during what normally would be celebratory times of the year. On Halloween, for example, when off-campus events historically attended by students were canceled, Campus Housing and Residence Life and the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership ramped up programming with events including themed virtual bingo, in-person film screenings and a costume contest.
“Confining students to campus is not an option, but giving them reasons to stay on campus, where we can better ensure their safety, helps lessen opportunities for the spread of COVID-19,” Foust said.
Mass testing, in-house contact tracing, increased physical and mental health support (including a FoneMed 24-hour medical and mental health advice hotline, a new psychiatrist position in the SU Counseling Center and a partnership with Therapy Assistance Online to provide 24/7 access to online mental health services), and new policies to reinforce best practices for reducing that spread (following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines) are just a few of the tools SU has used to create a safer environment for its students and employees. Preparation began in January, as the University started monitoring the virus as it impacted China.
Using protocols developed for previous pandemic threats, including the H5N1 “avian flu” in 2008 and H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009, the team created a framework for responding to the coronavirus. With the threat of the virus in the U.S. mounting by late February, a COVID-19 Task Force was created to oversee SU’s efforts.
In early March, the University began suspending study abroad programs in areas where the CDC and U.S. Department of State had issued warnings. Later, SU’s Janet Dudley-Eshbach Center for International Education helped international students studying abroad at SU navigate travel bans and other restrictions to return to their home countries.
In addition, the University worked with legislators to help members and alumnae of the SU Women’s Rugby Club return home from a non-University-affiliated spring break trip to Peru, disrupted once that country’s borders closed as a precaution against the coronavirus. The Salisbury University Foundation, Inc., assisted the students with hotel and meal costs when their stay in the country was unexpectedly extended.
Days later, the University System of Maryland announced that all its institutions, including SU, would suspend in-person classes for two weeks after spring break. SU classes during the two days before the break was scheduled to begin were suspended to allow faculty to attend intensive training sessions on how to pivot their classes from in-person to online.
“While SU has provided some distance-learning and online classes in the past, face-to-face teaching was the modality the majority of faculty were most familiar with,” said Dr. Karen Olmstead, SU provost and senior vice president of academic affairs. “There was a learning curve, but fortunately, our faculty’s expertise in teaching translated well from the classroom to the computer screen.”
As the pandemic worsened in the U.S. over spring break and other universities across the country began to see the devastating effects of students returning from spring break “super spreader” events, SU joined its USM colleagues in taking the unprecedented step of planning to finish the semester fully online. For the first time in history, all campus buildings were closed to the public.
SU administrators and employees put new skillsets to use to overcome numerous logistical problems. The University’s Information Technology Office, for example, worked to provide resources for students, faculty and staff who suddenly had to learn and work from home, in some cases without a high-speed internet connection. Wi-fi was extended to SU’s parking lots as a last resort for those still able to come to campus.
The University’s Housing and Residence Life Office worked to schedule times for residential students to retrieve their belongings while ensuring no more than four people in each building at once for maximum physical distancing. (A similar strategy was used for move-in at the beginning of the fall semester, expanded from its typical one-day format to a week-long event.)
Meanwhile, the Administration and Finance Division worked to distribute refunds for housing, dining and other student fees, repaid for services not provided during the weeks most students were not permitted on campus. In early April, less than three weeks after announcing the pivot to all-online classes, SU became the first USM campus to complete student move-out and refund distribution.
“Communication was, and still is, key,” said Modlin. “Very early in the process, President Wight answered questions about the University’s COVID-19 efforts and processes during a virtual town hall that has been the model for much of our communication since.”
Later town halls were geared toward specific audiences, including faculty, staff, and parents and families. Over the summer, Wight kept SU community members informed via a series of weekly “Presidential Perspectives” videos. In the fall, the town hall format continued with a weekly COVID-19 briefing, open to on- and off-campus community members, as well as the media.
“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Modlin said.
Other communications have included campus-wide emails, a “Question of the Day” feature on the University’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/salisburyu) and the ongoing development of an SU-centric COVID-19 webpage (www.salisbury.edu/coronavirus) where these communications are archived and the most up-to-date information is posted.
The site also includes an SU COVID-19 dashboard, created by the SU-affiliated Eastern Shore Regional GIS (Geographic Information System) Cooperative (ESRGC), which provides real-time testing data. (The ESRGC also worked with medical officials to create a Maryland-Washington, D.C. ventilator allocation database, providing real-time information on ventilator use and availability in the state and district.)
In addition, SU administrators and staff from the College of Health and Human Services, and Campus Safety and Environmental Health joined leaders from TidalHealth and the Wicomico County Health Department to offer their expertise for members of the campus and greater communities via the SU faculty-produced Focus on Health show, a staple on SU-affiliated public access channel PAC 14.
At the same time, SU recognized the financial hardship the onset of the coronavirus created for many students, some of whom found relief through the SU Emergency Fund, which has provided assistance to some 65 students since March. Many also received grant assistance through CARES Act funding, with additional monies available for those financially impacted by the virus.
The University didn’t forget about those in the greater community, either, providing food for local shelters, personal protective equipment (some of it hand-fabricated by faculty) for area hospitals and SU student-created physical education plans for elementary and middle school students suddenly learning from home, to name just a few ways in which SU reached out.
In addition, SU’s Student Government Association held a scaled-back version of its annual Big Event community cleanup, during which students raked leaves and performed light yardwork for registered campus neighbors. The University also donated 60 laptops to elementary schools in Salisbury and Baltimore to provide students there access to technology they needed for virtual classes.
Planning for Fall
In May, when the USM gave its member institutions approval to begin planning for a return to campus in fall, SU took an intensive approach, expanding its COVID-19 Task Force to include 12 planning teams, each with a specific focus on areas including mental health resources, University Dining Services (UDS), diversity and inclusion, campus recreation, athletics and more.
This led to a massive undertaking that included not only policy and protocol decisions, but a physical reinvention of the campus, including $50,000 in UDS upgrades (such as new grab-and-go stations throughout campus and a touch-screen system for custom orders at the Commons and other dining facilities), plexiglass barriers in most classrooms and offices, new cleaning and sanitizing equipment, and more.
At the same time, faculty worked to hone their virtual teaching skills in anticipation of teaching in one of four modalities: face-to-face, hybrid (a combination of face-to-face and virtual), remote (synchronous virtual) and online (asynchronous virtual). This allowed SU to welcome students back to campus in August with an estimated 56 percent of classes with an in-classroom component — believed to be the largest percentage in the USM.
Faculty also used new methods, and existing tools in new ways, to communicate with students and keep important programs such as undergraduate research — a pillar of an SU education — moving ahead. Remotely, students worked during the summer with faculty mentors on projects including searching for rare celestial companions (such as brown dwarf stars with companions), creating resources to help protect threatened pollinators, studying college students’ political engagement, and even analyzing the RNA structure of COVID-19 itself.
Beyond reaching out to students through programs like MyClasses, and using Panopto and Zoom to deliver course content, faculty also had to get creative with classes which did not immediately lend themselves to virtual teaching. Chemistry students, for example, received at-home lab kits to continue their studies. While in their own homes, music and theatre students staged online public performances thanks to innovative StreamWeaver software, allowing the seamless streaming of live and pre-recorded material. (SU’s productions in this format have earned accolades from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.)
Students also worked through the virtual environment to complete the second edition of Laridae, the University’s undergraduate academic journal, launched in 2019.
Over the summer, SU established COVID-19 health screening sites and protocols that allowed a phased return of employees to campus (though many were and still are encouraged to telework, as appropriate). Those protocols remain for campus visitors, while a new app developed specifically for SU allows all students, faculty and staff to self-screen each day as a requirement for being on campus.
At the beginning of the fall semester, SU provided most campus community members with a safety toolkit including an SU-branded face mask, a thermometer, a lanyard (to comply with requirements to keep Gull Cards visible at all times while on campus) a B-Safe key (used to open doors, switch lights on and off, etc., without touching them) and a refillable hand sanitizer bottle for use at stations throughout campus.
All USM students, faculty and staff were required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within two weeks of returning to campus for the start of the semester. This gave SU and other campuses a baseline for future testing. After that, only SU-administered tests were accepted.
Salisbury is the only university in the USM to conduct its own COVID-19 testing throughout the semester.
“It was important for us not only to provide a convenient way for the University community to be tested, but for the tests to be administered and results reported in a consistent manner,” said Modlin. “Size-wise, we’re in that sweet spot — small enough to regularly test a large percentage of our population, contact trace and facilitate isolation and quarantine when needed. But we’re large enough to have the experience, ability and resources to administer weekly testing for a large portion of our community.”
Such precise and timely data have allowed administrators to make quick decisions — temporarily closing campus recreation facilities and suspending athletics practices during that early spike, for example — that have been credited with making SU one of the statistically safest places for students in Maryland.
Looking ahead, SU is examining the conversion of its outdoor testing site to a safe indoor model for the winter months. Another mass testing event is scheduled for all students, faculty and staff returning to campus after Thanksgiving to catch any new COVID-19 cases early to mitigate the spread. And the number of classes with face-to-face components is expected to increase this spring.
University administrators also are beginning to plan for next steps once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes readily available.
“We’re already starting to consider options for storage and the logistics of providing vaccines to members of the campus community once we are able,” Modlin said. “Like most issues with COVID-19, this is entirely new territory. It’s going to take advance planning to ensure we can return to normal as quickly as possible.”
For most, that day can’t come quickly enough.
“Like many on campus, I’ve missed the type of in-person interaction with students, colleagues and others that we all took for granted not so long ago,” said Wight. “I can’t wait to once again attend in-person events like Commencement, Homecoming, cultural events and athletics games; chat with faculty and staff in the halls of our academic buildings; and see the campus filled with students, from Red Square to the Guerrieri Student Union.
“I’m confident that will all take place again soon, and when it does, the expertise our faculty and staff have gained in the past eight months will allow SU to be in the best position to reopen the campus fully and safely.”
For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU website at www.salisbury.edu.