Marymount overcomes COVID-19 challenges in unique fall semester

 

In what has been perhaps the most challenging semester for U.S. higher educational institutions in recent memory, Marymount University has successfully navigated the Fall 2020 academic semester as planned without any disruptions to its hybrid learning format or in-person living.

From mid-August, when residential students first started to move back to campus, to today, only 86 positive cases of COVID-19 have been identified among Marymount community members. The combined population of students, faculty and staff is approximately 4,000, meaning that the infection rate University-wide over a four-month period is approximately just two percent.

Following reopening decisions made in June, in-person class activities were finished by Thanksgiving break, with all remaining course requirements and final exams completed online. With COVID-19 cases rising once again at a high rate across the country, this plan was designed to prevent increased spread of the virus on campus due to holiday travel.

“In my view, especially for a university located in the populous Washington, D.C., metro area, this is a success story worth sharing – and it’s thanks to all of our community members for understanding their roles in keeping each other safe,” said Dr. Irma Becerra, President of Marymount University. “Our low rate of infection and continuous operations throughout the fall speak volumes in support of our preparation and determination to fulfill our mission – to provide a high-quality academic experience that opens doors for students and helps them grow personally and professionally. With the current health, economic and political challenges we are facing nationally and worldwide, our mission has never been more important.”

Ordinary campus life at colleges and universities everywhere has been significantly impacted by COVID-19, which has redefined so many aspects of how these institutions operate – from academics to admissions, athletics, student life and more. In light of this unprecedented challenge, schools have taken unique approaches to continuing the education of our nation’s future leaders while still maintaining their safety amidst a pandemic – some opening fully for the fall, some operating completely virtual and others staking out a middle ground.

To prepare for the “new normal” brought about by COVID-19, Marymount’s curriculum was adapted to a “hy-flex” format, in which both in-person and remote course delivery options were utilized to achieve a safe and optimum learning environment.

“Despite the pandemic and its challenges, the semester has been successful largely because of our faculty and staff and their hard work,” said Dr. Hesham El-Rewini, Provost of Marymount University. “Their dedication and commitment to our students has been unmatched, and has allowed our students to learn and continue towards graduation in the mode of learning they are most comfortable with during these times.”

Strict social distancing and face covering rules were implemented, and physical spaces such as residential living spaces and classrooms were restructured to accommodate for physical distancing guidelines. For example, the University’s largest classroom space – the Ballston Auditorium – previously had 206 available seats. To maintain social distancing, however, that number was trimmed to 18, and it now seats 8.7 percent of what it used to seat.

Following the end of in-person classes this semester, it has been confirmed that no positive COVID-19 cases at Marymount were transmitted in classroom settings.

Marymount’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts also emphasized rapid testing and proactive contact tracing in order to stem the spread and isolate any clusters of cases that could appear. When one such cluster formed in October, the University partnered with the Arlington County Public Health Department (ACPHD) to assess the number of students on campus who may have been asymptomatic for COVID-19 through targeted testing. After nearly 220 tests of mostly residential students were taken, only six returned as positive.

The lack of positive cases among faculty and staff at Marymount has been heartening, as well. Since mid-August, only six who have been on campus have tested positive, with no hospitalizations to date.

“Keeping both our students and our workforce safe and healthy has always been our top priority, and these results are a testament to our proactive efforts to isolate the virus and keep it contained,” explained Dr. William Bisset, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Marymount University. “It is still crucial for all of us to remain vigilant in the form of mask wearing, social distancing and exercising good hand hygiene.”

Marymount’s spring classes are scheduled to begin on January 19, with the hybrid class format continuing for the foreseeable future. In order to begin the semester in a safe and secure manner, the University intends to test all student residents, student athletes, commuters registered for in-person classes, faculty who teach in-person classes and identified staff members for COVID-19 prior to the start of classes. In addition, Marymount is working on a campus plan for vaccination whenever it becomes available to higher educational institutions.