Orla Collins Orla Collins


In College Park, Maryland, the imminent start of the fall semester has become evident. So too, have the risks that will come with it.

Classes are slated to begin in person at the University of Maryland-College Park on Sept. 14 after two weeks of virtual instruction. About 5,000 students are expected to move into on-campus housing beginning Aug. 27. Many of the other 30,000 undergraduates will move into local apartments off-campus, doubling the population of the town. Due to the population growth, many fear the number of students acting irresponsibly in the midst of a pandemic will cause the risk of a local COVID-19 outbreak to increase.

“I’m really worried because it’s a situation where a small number of people could have a big impact [and] how that leads to demonization of a very large number of people,” said UMD professor and College Park resident Colin Phillips.

The arrival of students every fall is essential for local businesses. Some businesses in College Park said they now face serious financial loss due to virtual instruction. The Hotel at UMD, which opened in 2017, was forced to close temporarily in March. It laid off 150 of its staff.

“The little bit of business we had left, we were housing the [Maryland] football team, because they needed to be isolated to be safe, and that is gone now,” Southern Management CEO, which owns the hotel, Suzanne Hillman told Bisnow. The Big Ten Conference, of which UMD is a part, has postponed the fall sports season.

However, the return of students raises concerns over an inevitable increase in local COVID-19 cases.

“While on one hand, having students return to the salon could be more revenue for the salon and myself, on the other, myself or other people in the salon could be infected with COVID-19,” said Kathleen Hellington, stylist at Bananas Hair Design in College Park.

COVID cases began to rise in Maryland in late March. As a result, UMD, like many universities nationwide, moved to virtual education for the rest of the spring semester. Prince George’s County, where College Park is located, continues to have the highest test positivity rate in the state at 5.2 percent.

On Aug. 10, three weeks before classes were scheduled to begin, UMD President Darryll J. Pines announced that classes would start online for the first two weeks. 

Pines told the campus community in a statement that “the health of our university community and slowing the spread of COVID-19 must remain our continuing and unwavering priorities.”

Pines stated that students would be allowed to move in as planned, but are advised to stay in their dorms as much as possible.

The city of College Park is also working to be proactive in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing social distancing laws.

“I am working with city staff and both U-MD and County public safety and health officials to determine how we will enforce limits on large gatherings and occupancy restrictions in our local rental properties and our bars and restaurants,” said College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn in his weekly update on Aug. 17.

Prince George’s County has said it will conduct inspections of businesses through the Ambassador Program. The program will fine businesses found in violation of COVID related laws to pressure them to crack down on irresponsible student behavior. UMD has said that students found in violation of the code will be sent to the Office of Student Conduct for potential sanctions.

Universities that have already allowed students to return to campus this fall have commonly seen a growth in COVID-19 cases. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, videos of students holding parties and not social distancing quickly went viral. The university recorded 135 new cases in the first week of classes and immediately shut down the campus, urging students to move back home.

Before the UNC campus closed, Chapel Hill residents voiced their frustration to university leaders regarding irresponsible student behaviour such as fraternity parties.

Other Maryland universities, including Johns Hopkins and Loyola University Maryland, have moved entirely virtual this fall semester, closing their campuses to students.

The University of Maryland has created a COVID-19 dashboard on their website to publicly monitor the spread of the virus on campus in an effort to make an informed decision about reopening. 

Still the return of students has led to some opposition.

On Tuesday, a union of workers at Maryland universities staged a drive-by protest on the College Park campus. Protest leaders called for the University System of Maryland to issue a more comprehensive COVID-19 plan. The demands follow a union survey that found that 46 percent of respondents said they worked in areas that are not properly ventilated, increasing risk of infection, among other worrying statistics

“I see students out together at the intersection of Route One and Knox Road every time I leave work. I see people at Cornerstone and [R. J.] Bentley’s and they don’t all seem to be wearing masks or staying six feet apart from each other,” said Hellington about students at local restaurants in downtown College Park.