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UMBC plans to house more students and allow more on-campus activities in Fall 2021. Graphic by Lily LaFemina

UMBC releases plans for a more “normal” Fall 2021 semester

Last week, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County sent an email to all students saying that it will resume “more normal on-campus activities in the fall.” For the upcoming Fall 2021 semester, the UMBC community can expect increased accessibility to campus for residency halls, face-to-face classes and student events and organizations. As current public health guidelines for social distancing and personal protective equipment develop, UMBC administration said it will remain committed to science and safety.

One of the most significant changes coming this fall is residency hall capacity. According to Dr. Nancy Young, Vice President for Student Affairs, UMBC expects to fill campus housing to at least 75 percent capacity.

We are optimistic about opening residential halls with the majority of beds full. The more vaccinations, the more full we can be,” said Young.

Since UMBC is not a distance education institution, the university is obligated to offer an increased number of classes with at least some on-campus presence. Generally, students will be expected to physically attend any in-person classes. There will, however, be a significant number of online and hybrid offerings, so students will have some freedom when choosing their preferred format.

“We are trying to fit as many face-to-face classes as possible,” explained Dr. Philip Rous, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

According to UMBC administration, the Centers for Disease Control’s change in social distancing requirements from six feet to three feet in classroom settings drastically increases the number of students that can safely occupy a classroom. In conjunction with face masks and increased vaccination rates, Rous and Young said these new factors effectively doubles the number of students that can be in a classroom.

Maintaining safety in a large, lecture hall-style class, however, remains challenging; faculty and staff are looking for creative solutions.

“We have put into the inventory some spaces that are not regular classrooms, but are bigger spaces,” said Rous. “Maybe [large classes] can’t be fully face-to-face, but they can be hybrid if they are done that way.” 

This year, departments had to request face-to-face approval, a process requiring a detailed academic and health risk assessment. This fall, if faculty wish to continue teaching online, they must submit their reasoning to their departments. While some professors might prefer to stay online, every UMBC department were encouraged to offer as many face-to-face classes as classroom space allows.

UMBC administration and the heads of major departments are still searching for ways to accommodate some professors and possibly some students’ wishes to remain at least partially online.

“Maybe one instructor takes over a class face-to-face, and the other takes over online,” explained Rous.

With an almost-normal number of students projected to live and study on campus in the fall, there will be more opportunities to participate in student life events and organizations.

According to Young, “Since we are going to have the campus more open, you should come back expecting to see tents with a lot of physical distance … and places where people can socialize safely … and continue our campus traditions.”

Students can look forward to an in-person Involvement Fair and career fairs, as well as newly-installed equipment in The Commons that will allow for hybrid gatherings of student orgs. The goal with offering these resources is to allow more students to participate in campus life safely, explained Young. Plans are still underway for the reopening of the Albin O. Kuhn Library, with updates on its phased reopening coming soon.

The newly-renovated Retriever Activities Center will also be open in the fall, though physical distancing guidelines will likely still be in place

Students can also expect to attend outdoor sporting events in both the Retriever Soccer Park and the stadium complex. As of March 12, UMBC Athletics allowed two guests per student athlete and coach at outdoor games and looks to expand opportunities for students to cheer on their favorite Retriever teams in the fall.

“One of our primary goals is to make sure that no matter what comes next fall, we can do the same kinds of [campus events] we did this year, but for more students,” said Young.

A new “well-being space” will also be opening in a brand new facility adjacent to Erickson Field. The goal is to develop a center with a more holistic approach to student health. It combines preventative health measures, such as blood pressure measurements, with holistic services, such as counseling or therapy. According to Young, the new space will help the campus look at how environments create stress.

The Women’s Center and Interfaith Center will remain in their current locations.

Young said the “game changer” in UMBC’s plans for Fall 2021 was the Biden Administration’s use of the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production. As a result, it is expected that the vaccine will be available and in the arms of anyone who wants it by the fall semester. For Maryland-native UMBC students and staff, Governor Larry Hogan announced on March 18 that anyone 16 years and older will be able to register for vaccine appointments starting April 27

These vaccine availability announcements were some of the reasons that the fall’s course schedule was released a week later than anticipated. Previously, there were concerns that the vaccine would not be available for young people until August 2021, with the U.S. slowly returning to “normal” by December. However, the upped schedule of vaccine availability lead UMBC administration to feel confident that the campus could safely hold more in-person classes and house more students.

For the students and staff approved to be on campus this year, COVID-19 symptom tracking and weekly testing is required. Pending any new public health guidelines and current masking cooperation, however, the amount of necessary testing might be reduced.

“We might [just] target the testing to environments, rather than people,” explained Young. “If you are in a music class, for example, you might have a different testing requirement.”

While much of the optimism surrounding the fall rests on vaccinations, UMBC has no legal authority to require it, unless it is mandated by the state and University System of Maryland. Additionally, students’ vaccination status cannot be used to discriminate or give one group priority for classes over another. For this reason, UMBC is simply saying that vaccinations are “strongly encouraged.” However, UMBC administration expects USM to decide whether vaccines are required for those returning to campus in the coming weeks.

Students overwhelmingly want to return to the UMBC experience, the UMBC community,” said Rous. “It’s about campus access, gathering with friends, making friends, participating in student orgs and events and going to the library.”