UMD Fights Pandemic With Historic Changes

Campus Closed, Courses Taught Online, Sports Stopped to Prevent COVID-19 Spread
Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

For the first time since after the Civil War, a national crisis this semester shuttered most of the University of Maryland’s physical campus. But this is no longer a fledgling college schooling a few dozen cadets. The COVID-19 pandemic upended life for a community of more than 50,000 students, faculty and staff.

As part of a society-wide attempt to head off the virus’ spread, UMD students were sent home to take all classes online. Staff and faculty turned kitchens and dens into offices. Researchers pivoted to producing desperately needed supplies.

The NCAA basketball tournaments—in which both Terp teams would have competed—were canceled. Then spring sports nationwide followed suit.

The same social distancing rules also pushed the May 22 Commencement ceremony into a virtual event with a call to graduates to walk across the stage in December.

“This global emergency will demand much from us all, but our community is up to the challenge,” said UMD President Wallace D. Loh.

As the virus crept closer to the campus, university leaders took a series of unprecedented steps to keep Terps safe.


Maryland—along with universities nationwide—had to redefine what it means to provide an education.

UMD began suspending study abroad programs in January, before the worsening threat prompted orders for all students to return to the U.S. “out of deep and growing concern for the health and safety of our students,” said Mary Ann Rankin, senior vice president and provost.

On March 12, the day the first community-spread case of COVID-19 was reported in the state of Maryland, the university announced the campus would close and canceled classes for a week after spring break to give faculty time to prepare to conduct classes remotely. Soon afterward, UMD shifted the remainder of the semester online, and offered a pass/fail grading option.

Faculty scrambled to adapt in-person teaching to a digital format, which presented unique challenges for laboratory, studio or other hands-on classes, while students adjusted to the new format, and altered structure (or lack of it) at home.


As the first blush of spring turned the campus landscape pink and green, few were there to see it. Maryland was nearly deserted.

A few hundred students with no other options continued living on campus, while essential employees stayed on to feed them, maintain facilities and protect public safety.

The vast majority of students had left for spring break unaware that they were saying goodbye for the semester—or for seniors, potentially forever. As of press time, residence hall check-outs were still being planned, and the university was issuing prorated refunds for room and board.

To ease the jarring shift from communal living to potential isolation in teenage bedrooms, the Division of Student Affairs sought to keep students connected through a palette of virtual programs.

Some students and staff struggled financially as they or family members lost jobs due to businesses closing. Following an alarming spike in pleas for emergency assistance—from about five to hundreds per week—the university launched a fundraising campaign in late March to restore the depleted Student Crisis Fund. From the pandemic’s onset to mid-April, it had disbursed about $570,000 to over 1,200 students.


The university’s normal research activities were slowed, then all but halted by severe restrictions to keep people safe. Maintenance operations continued, from caring for animals to safeguarding sensitive equipment.

Not all research was off-limits, however; Maryland scientists and engineers launched a flurry of projects designed to, among other things: hack together cheap but functional respirators to address the national shortage of machines to help sick patients breathe; construct a model to predict where the next outbreaks could occur; and concoct hand sanitizer for local first responders and other health-care workers.


The men’s and women’s final basketball victories—the former taking a share of the Big Ten title and the latter winning the conference tournament—weren’t supposed to be their last.

But in whirlwind succession, spectators, then the men’s Big Ten tourney, then March Madness, then all NCAA spring sports evaporated.

“Woww. This can’t be real at all,” shocked Terps forward Jalen Smith tweeted on March 12.

The season was lost, but not the careers of seniors competing in spring sports such as lacrosse, track and field and baseball. The NCAA voted to allow an extra year of eligibility for any student-athlete whose spring sports season was cut off due to the pandemic, adjusting scholarship limits and granting each school discretion on how to allocate financial aid for returning seniors.


The virus wiped out the UMD calendar this semester, including Maryland Day and Commencement.

Honoring Terps who complete their degree remains an imperative, however, so this spring, the university will offer a virtual celebration on May 22, featuring speeches along with photos, videos and messages crowdsourced from graduates.

They and guests will also be offered free tickets to the Sept. 12 football game, where they will be recognized, and invited to join their summer and fall counterparts at December’s commencement, which will shift to a Sunday afternoon.


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