Colleges rearrange student housing to contain coronavirus

Ordinarily, the University of Maryland tries to maximize the capacity of its residence halls by putting three or four students into some rooms. But next fall, those triples and quads will become doubles as the university aims to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus on its campus in College Park.

At American University, arrangements will be even more strict, according to plans released Tuesday. The private university in the District of Columbia will cut the number of available beds on campus by almost half, to 2,300 from 4,300, using a standard of one student per room, spokeswoman Lisa Stark said.

Emerging blueprints for a highly unusual fall semester show that universities in the Washington region are trying to bring as many students back as they can while reducing the health risks inherent when large numbers of people gather in close quarters to live and study together amid a pandemic.

At Frostburg State University, there will be no roommates for those who live on the Maryland campus. Trinity Washington University, in D.C., is headed in the same direction: one student per room. George Washington University, the largest in the capital city, also plans to reduce the density of its student housing by shedding bunk beds.

Officials hope students will understand the imperative to reshape campus housing. The goal is to avoid flareups of a contagious disease that has killed more than 110,000 Americans since February.

U-Md. President Wallace Loh, who is retiring at the end of the month, released the outline of a fall plan Monday night in a letter to the campus community. He described a “gradual re-opening” for the term starting Aug. 31 and thanked faculty, staff and students for working on the unprecedented operational challenges facing a research university with more than 41,000 students.

“Because of your work, I am confident that we will re-open the campus safely, and that our State’s flagship university will emerge from this trying time as an even stronger institution,” Loh wrote.

In his letter, Loh wrote that there are 8,900 “bed spaces” in residence halls. “To de-densify, triples and quad units are converted to doubles, and floor lounges are made into single or double rooms to minimize the opportunities for larger gatherings,” Loh wrote.

It was not clear how many fewer students would be living in the residence halls in the fall compared with a normal term. University officials on Tuesday had no answer to that question. “On housing, we’ll have more to say after we contact residents with housing decisions over the next couple of days,” U-Md. spokeswoman Natifia Mullings said in a text.

Loh wrote that the university plans to offer housing to more than 75% of those who applied for it, including all first-year students. There will be beds set aside for isolating students who may have been infected by the virus, he added.

“Extensive procedures are also being implemented for the safety and health of Resident Life staff, housekeeping staff, and facilities staff who work in the residence halls,” Loh wrote.

Much as other universities have outlined, U-Md. plans to offer a mix of instructional methods, with some teaching face-to-face and other classes delivered online. Loh said a priority for in-person teaching would be “labs, performance courses, senior capstone projects, clinical instruction and internships.” He also said that most courses with 50 or more students are likely to be at least partially online.

The university will launch a “health information campaign” to promote “critical healthy behaviors.” That will include frequent hand-washing, physical distancing and wearing a face covering “at all times when in proximity to others,” Loh wrote.

Distancing and mask rules are likely to be part of the college experience around the country amid the pandemic. But how effectively schools will enforce those public health mandates remains to be seen.

Darryll Pines, longtime dean of engineering at U-Md., will take over as president on July 1 when Loh retires.

Dan Alpert, U-Md.’s student body president, said students are excited to come back to campus. The 21-year-old marketing major, a rising senior, said he appreciates efforts to help incoming students. The first year of college sets the tone for those that follow, he said. “We really want to make sure our freshmen are comfortable with one another.”

But Alpert has questions about other facets of campus life. As a member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, he wonders how it will be affected.

“The big thing is our philanthropic events. How does community service look with a pandemic?” Alpert said. “We used to fit 80 guys in the chapter house on campus and now we can’t do that.”

At American University, which has about 14,000 students, freshmen who want to live on campus will be given preference for housing when school starts in August. Some sophomores who planned to live in dorms will be relocated to apartments away from campus. Officials will use hotels if they need backup housing. Stark, the spokeswoman, said AU will help juniors and seniors, who typically live off-campus, find housing in the District.

“Face coverings and physical distancing will be required at all times on campus,” with limited exceptions under health and safety guidance, AU President Sylvia Burwell wrote. She said the university will offer “a blended combination of in-person/online classes and purely online classes,” seeking to provide flexibility during a fluid public health situation.

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