How can UMD ensure that its coronavirus response is fair to students and employees?

The University of Maryland's Main Administration Building. (File photo/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

My head hurts from trying to keep up with news about the coronavirus. There are innumerable cancellations and closures of events and institutions I would have thought were untouchable. And there is a palpable sense of anxiety. “This is starting to have an end-times feeling to it,” says New York Times columnist Bret Stephens — as I write this, my roommate is yelling about how we’re living in the movie Contagion

I would argue that the University of Maryland has done a decent job disseminating information and announcements about the situation, especially considering its subpar communication regarding previous crises, which I’ve criticized in this column before. 

As for its actual response, this university’s move to cancel classes Friday corrected its earlier decision to hold classes in person until spring break. There was a discordance between the worry caused by Knight Hall being sanitized while some students and faculty self-quarantined, and classes continuing across the campus as planned. Other universities were quicker to cancel their classes amid fear of an outbreak, but the administration responded appropriately despite what may have felt like a sudden reversal. 

It’s hard to fault the university in a situation as tumultuous as this. Its response has been commensurate with that of other academic institutions — it has promptly suspended its study abroad programs in Europe and parts of Asia and made plans to extend spring break and move all classes online. 

Still, there are serious questions that will need to be answered in the near future, and students need to be reassured that things will be handled in an equitable and efficient manner. 

For one, will students whose study abroad programs have been suspended be refunded? How will they be able to fulfill course credit for the semester? The university offered to reimburse up to $500 of the travel costs for students returning to the U.S. after programs in Europe were suspended. But if those students aren’t able to complete their semester, they should be refunded. 

Similarly, students living in on-campus housing should be refunded for room and board for as long as they are not allowed to return to their dorms after spring break. Even if everything goes back to normal following the two-week period of online classes, that’s still three extra weeks of students not being able to live in their already exorbitantly priced housing. The only fair solution would be for those in on-campus housing to be refunded for any amount of time they aren’t allowed back. 

It’s also important that hourly workers are accommodated in some way to soften the blow that will come with a likely disruption in their pay due to the reduced hours of operations for many facilities. For university employees in general, the option to telework was a no-brainer — but to avoid employees coming to work sick, generous paid leave is going to be crucial for those who are unable to work from home.

There’s also the question of how this university’s digital infrastructure will hold up to keep classes functional. There are workshops and training sessions underway to help professors smoothly transition to online classes, but there’s reason to be concerned given that some professors can barely keep their ELMS pages organized — who knows how they’ll fare trying to run an entirely virtual class. The university has been proactive in surveying students about their ability to move online for their classes; it’s vital that all students are given access to online resources. 

So much about what this university will be doing in the coming weeks is still up in the air. This is a logistical disaster and a surreal disruption to the semester, but there are some concerns that will need to be addressed to ensure a fair response. 

Zachary Jablow, opinion editor, is a junior economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at zachjablow@gmail.com.

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