A message from President Schatzel regarding fall term

August 26, 2020

The following message was sent to campus Wednesday morning.

Dear Towson University students, faculty, staff, alumni and families,

This spring we transitioned to remote learning and telework due to Gov. Hogan’s executive order to “stay at home” to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, we have diligently prepared the campus and classes for a much-lower-density return of students, faculty and staff guided by our commitment to fully comply with local, state and federal health and safety guidelines.

This fall term we planned to have 85% of our instruction online, less than 50% occupancy of our residence halls, and continuation of either full- or part-time telework for faculty and staff so that at any time, less than 20% of our colleagues would be present on campus. I am forever grateful to the hundreds of our faculty and staff who worked so very hard for so many months to prepare our beautiful campus and our outstanding colleges for our return to TU.

When it was adopted in June, our Return to TU plan held as its very first principle a commitment to health and safety. It reads:

“TU values the health and safety of our community above all else. We will use science and data to make decisions, following the guidance of the University System of Maryland (USM) and local, state and federal authorities, including the Center for Disease Control and the Maryland Department of Health. As conditions change, so too will our campus practices, flexibly adapting to the changing environment while maintaining the highest levels of health and safety.”

As part of the Return to TU plan, to further ensure the health and safety of our community, we required that every student, faculty and staff member provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within a ten day window prior to returning to campus. In support of that requirement, the University Health Center provided thousands of free tests to members of our campus community over the past 10 weeks, and 17 positive tests resulted. However, on Saturday Aug. 23, 55 positive tests were reported.

The TU community was quickly informed, including the assurance that none of the individuals were on campus. Based on this surge of positive results and guided by our first principle to place health and safety as the top priority, on Saturday I made the decision to pivot to fully remote instruction, suspend move-in, limit on-campus faculty and staff to essential workers only, suspend any face to face events, and close all the dining halls to indoor dining.

Starting Saturday, the 55 individuals — 52 are TU students — were immediately contacted and proceeded to self-quarantine. However, the next day, an additional 11 positive tests — 10 are students — were reported. Again, these individuals were not on campus.

Over the past four days, the University Health Center and TU’s COVID-19 Response Team have worked tirelessly in collaboration with Baltimore County Department of Health, USM scientists, and the Maryland Department of Health to determine if this surge was an outbreak and what common factor(s) might link these positive cases.

Across our nation we have seen news stories and videos of college students gathering in large groups to socialize and party, often without masks and/or not physical distancing. Many on our campus and in the community have speculated that the surge reported this past weekend resulted from such behavior by our students and that the investigation by the health departments would reveal that a cluster or outbreak had indeed occurred.

The conclusion after several days of around-the-clock assessment by these public health professionals is that no common factor linked these cases. The students did not attend a gathering or party together. They did not reside in the same house or apartment building. In short, there was no outbreak or cluster. Instead, the virus was transmitted through community spread, which simply means the source of the infection is unknown.

As president of Towson University, my greatest priority and responsibility is to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. The events of the last few days are a reminder of the unpredictable nature of the virus. However, the good news is that our advance planning and baseline testing worked. The individuals were diagnosed, are in self-quarantine being cared for, and were prevented from coming to campus.

As we have seen take place both nationally and locally each university must decide a path for themselves based on campus and local conditions. I have decided, despite the great planning and outstanding efforts by dozens and dozens of our TU colleagues to prepare our campus, it is unlikely that we will not see more incidents of COVID-19 surge if we continue to return to campus as first planned.

So, for the remainder of this term all instruction will be remote. We will begin working with our residential students to move them out of residence halls and continue their classes remotely. As a reminder, 85% of our instruction is already online so unlike this past spring, the possibility of fully remote instruction was already part of our planning. All students were going to finish the semester in a fully remote format after Thanksgiving. We are simply moving that transition into place now.

There will be some exceptions to allow continued face-to-face instruction and research in the College of Health Professions, Fisher College of Science & Mathematics and the College of Fine Arts and Communication as well as some graduate programs. Those colleges and programs will be finalizing plans and communicating to affected students, faculty and staff in the next few days. Our research initiatives, always guided by the highest standards for safety, will continue as well. We are committed to working with students needing labs, studios and performance-based classes that are required for completion of their degrees.

Housing & Residence Life will be providing information to all students who are impacted by this decision. Refunds will be promptly issued to residential students who have already paid for housing and dining plans for the fall term.

We also realize that TU is the safest place to live for many of our students and that TU is home to many of our international students. Just as last spring, we will continue to provide a safe place for these students and others with significant hardships and circumstances in our residence halls. More information about this process will be coming shortly from Housing & Residence Life.

For our TU faculty and staff, we want to continue to support teleworking whenever possible. One of my greatest disappointments in making this decision is that the hard work and planning of countless faculty and staff — especially those who were part of the Return to TU Task Force — will not be fully realized. Their work and collaboration over the past months has been tireless and inspiring to me. I want to again extend my sincerest gratitude to everyone for their dedication.

We will work very hard to support this transition for every member of our community. The virus has impacted all of us but some have been impacted more than others. We will continue to provide access to much needed emergency funds, technology, and mental health support for those in need.

This has been a most difficult decision for me, but the safety of our campus community must be our priority and our utmost concern. We have made this decision based on science and data with the support of our experts on campus, in the USM, and public health professionals.

Along with each and every member of our faculty and staff, I remain unwavering in my commitment to the success of each and every one of our students. I am greatly saddened that our students, especially our first-year students, will not to able to experience life in our residence halls. But we will do everything we can to support and embrace our students as part of our university and our Tiger community.

I am very grateful for the support offered by so many as we meet the challenges of the pandemic together. I am so very proud of our university community and so very proud to be a Towson Tiger.

Kim Schatzel, Ph.D.