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Life under the mask: Grading SU’s response to COVID-19

Salisbury University has been one of few institutions statewide to sustain in-person operations throughout the entire 2020-21 academic year, offering a combination of in-person, virtual and hybrid-formatted instruction to its students.

Rather than merely finalizing grades for spring semester courses, SU’s campus community has also assessed the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While both students and faculty members acknowledged the struggles associated with a hybrid learning environment and a mostly empty campus, many applauded SU’s resilience and thorough approach in protecting the campus community from coronavirus surges since returning for the fall.

Following an early spike in coronavirus cases in early September, SU overhauled its testing practices and maintained a COVID-19 positivity rate across campus below 2% through the remainder of the academic year.

The university raised an initial monthly testing requirement to once per week for students in March, with freshman Colby Knight calling the frequency increase a correct step in continuing to monitor virus levels on campus.

“I think SU has done enough [to protect students],” Knight said. “We have to get weekly tests and your [gull card] gets deactivated if you don’t get your test, so then you can’t do anything on campus.”

Junior Javier Suarez agreed SU has done a “pretty good job” with testing and preserving some of the in-person college experience, though he hopes to be reunited with more of his peers on campus in the fall.

SU also made a push to vaccinate its campus population through three SU-exclusive vaccination clinics in April, each hosted by the Wicomico County Health Department in Maggs Physical Activities Center.

Sophomore Styles Wilson said many of his peers have either already received doses of the vaccine or attended one of SU’s vaccination clinics. Wilson said he approves of the proactive measures and hopes more students attend the university’s future clinics over the summer.

“I think a lot of people in Salisbury have gotten their vaccine and should keep getting it … [the results] will only be positive,” Styles said.

Despite successes in addressing testing and vaccinations, challenges and obstacles continued to reemerge for the university.

SU President Charles Wight said more than half of the university’s spring course offerings featured in-person elements, though Dr. Argha Sen, an assistant professor of marketing at SU, said the true in-person experience simply cannot be replicated in a hybrid setting.

“I have missed directly interacting with students because largely it has been either a Zoom class or a hybrid class … and I can see the struggle the students have had with coming to campus,” Sen said.

The university’s decision in the fall to implement an “abbreviated” two-day spring break — rather than its typical week-long break — faced fierce backlash from students, citing mental health concerns amid a global pandemic.

Gov. Larry Hogan also lifted capacity limits on indoor and outdoor dining and retail businesses less than a week before SU began spring break, igniting fears over potential spikes in COVID-19 cases following the campus’ return.

Attempting to address criticism of its fully virtual fall commencement ceremony, each SU academic school is set to host its own personalized virtual commencement ceremony in the spring with a customized slideshow. An in-person “grad walk” will also assembled for graduates to walk across a commencement stage in their regalia at Sea Gull Stadium with four guests.

Yet, as the state continued to loosen coronavirus restrictions through the spring on outdoor events, most other USM institutions held in-person ceremonies for spring graduates using facilities even smaller than Sea Gull Stadium.

On-campus events slowly returned to SU as the year progressed to engage the limited student population, however, with the Clarke Honors College Sound Healing event serving as one of the final opportunities for university members to gather until the fall semester on Saturday.

CHC Mental Health Committee's Sound Healing event held May 1.

Well-rehearsed inside each of the university’s classrooms throughout the year, social distancing and mask-wearing protocols were enforced during all indoor and outdoor events held on SU’s campus.

Honors College professor Heather McCarty, who attended the meditation event, praised students’ adaptability in making the event a success and encouraged the university to take a similar approach in future event planning.

“I believe we had such a good turnout because this is a stressful time of year, so lying on a mat and listening to sound bowls required little of students, while giving them a relaxing, safe space,” McCarty said. “The loneliness that comes with the pandemic requires such innovative events for our students … I have not only been very impressed by our student body's ability to adapt to [COVID-19] protocols, but also to seek out community.”

SU is expected to return to almost fully in-person operations in the fall, with nearly all classes scheduled to be delivered via in-person formats. Social distancing and face mask protocols are likely to remain in effect, as well as continued COVID-19 testing.



News editor

Featured media courtesy of Jakob Todd.

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