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Higher education center getting new executive director

The first named executive director to lead the local higher education center since it was absorbed into the University System of Maryland will take her place next month.

Eileen Abel, who has been a vice president of academic affairs at the College of Southern Maryland since June 2015, was hired effective Dec. 1 to lead University System of Maryland at Southern Maryland. She was appointed by USM Chancellor Jay A. Perman after a nationwide search and replaces Ben O. Latigo, who has been serving as interim executive director at the campus in St. Mary’s County.

In an interview on Nov. 17, Latigo said he will remain as chief academic officer. He noted that he was appointed as interim director in April 2018, replacing former executive director Mel Powell when he retired in March of that year.

Latigo said the University System of Maryland and the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, as the campus was formerly known, were supposed to merge in July 2018, but the state legislature delayed it until March 2019. Consequently, his appointment as interim executive director “lasted much longer” than originally planned, he said.

Perman said he’s grateful to Latigo “for his service as USMSM’s interim director. I know his excellent stewardship will help [Abel] more quickly operationalize an ambitious short- and long-term vision.”

Abel aims to educate

Key among Abel’s accomplishments at CSM, according to a release, have been overseeing the college-to-work pathways in engineering and cyber security with local military facilities, developing internship support for students engaged in research with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Solomons, and working with St. Mary’s County Public Schools to create an early college academy at CSM’s Leonardtown campus for fall 2021.

Abel has managed an overall budget of $22.5 million at CSM and provided leadership for faculty-led academic departments, the library, tutoring center and other important divisions, the release states.

Abel said the University System of Maryland’s “overarching goal is to build lives and families and educate citizens — a goal to which I have dedicated my entire professional life with community colleges. The system’s regional higher education centers offer a unique model of access to bachelor completion and graduate programs, and USMSM will soon have the added advantage of a third building, currently under construction, that will offer high tech research opportunities.”

In a phone call, Abel said she grew up in the Fort Collins, Colo., area. She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio and master’s and doctorate degrees in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Abel’s annual salary will be $205,000, according to USM public information officer Mike Lurie. Latigo’s salary was $133,000 in 2019, according to the Baltimore Sun’s state salaries database.

Third building still in the works

The higher education center’s third building is currently under construction at 44219 Airport Road in California. Latigo said the construction project should be complete by September 2021. The $87 million, 84,000-square-foot building will nearly double the educational footprint on campus, according to the release.

The third building — which has yet to be named — will be used for instruction and research, Latigo said. The first two buildings on the campus are used primarily for instruction and training, although training has been suspended this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The higher education center offers more than 90 degree or certification programs from nine institutions, five public and four private.

Programs are primarily offered at the graduate level. These include education, management, systems engineering, engineering, flight test engineering, social work and others. Undergraduate programs offered include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, criminal justice, social work, business and more.

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews

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Tackling their toughest opponent ever
  • Updated

The St. Mary’s College of Southern Maryland women’s soccer team has battled many tough opponents over the years but, ironically, during a year they will not take to the pitch at all, they are helping to tackle one of the toughest foes ever. The Seahawks came together recently to take part in the Vs. Cancer fundraiser, the signature campaign for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

“Almost all of us know someone who has suffered from various forms of cancer, and while it is never easy, watching children suffer is even more heartbreaking and emotional,” said St. Mary’s College of Maryland head women’s soccer coach Peter Krech, whose brother, Michael, had brain cancer when he was a teenager. “I am proud of my players for supporting such an important cause.”

“I’m ecstatic because it’s awesome to be part of something like this and it’s really cool that we were able to surpass our goal,” said senior captain Maddie Webb. “I think it’s really awesome that our team was able to come together like that.”

The team raised $1,773 thanks in large part to a 4-mile virtual run held Oct. 25. The number four brings awareness to the fact that only 4% of federal government cancer research funds are designated to pediatric cancer research.

“I just think that having a goal in terms of donations gave us something to work toward,” Krech. “Personally myself I’m very excited. I think obviously we would have loved to have had the season and focus on some other things, but all things considered I’m proud of the group for still being able to find ways to have a positive impact. Cancer is a horrible thing for anyone to deal with, more so for kids, so I think it’s an important cause and from my standpoint I was happy to be involved with it and I’m proud of the team for being involved with it and hopefully we’ll continue to be involved with Vs. Cancer moving forward.”

The team placed 10th overall among 18 colleges and universities that took part in the fundraising campaign, despite having just 12 members, the fourth fewest members.

“To be in the top-10 overall is something that I’m very proud of the team for,” Krech said. “I’m proud of them for a lot of things this fall and what they’re doing and the adversity and the perseverance they’re showing, but to raise $1,700 for pediatric cancer is just phenomenal. There are certainly bigger things than soccer and I think this would fall into this category, so I can’t say enough about the group overall.”

The Seahawks’ 177% increase over its original goal of $1,000 was sixth-best.

“I was very surprised I didn’t know how much people would donate because everyone’s financial situations are different,” said sophomore goalie Audra Haines, “so I’m really surprised that we exceeded our goal and kept raising money even after we reached our goal.”

The University of Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team and its 55 members raised a campaign-best $13,176, followed by the Providence men’s lacrosse team ($12,645) and the Providence College women’s soccer team ($8,318).

“We applaud the efforts and generous spirit of St. Mary’s College women’s soccer,” Kimberly Roy-Canning, the director of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s northeast region said in a release. “Vs. Cancer wasn’t just built by athletes for athletes. We were started by a pediatric brain cancer survivor, and we see every day how important family support and research are for children to thrive.”

Last season, the Seahawks raised proceeds for Vs. Cancer during its Oct. 26, 2019, game against Mary Washington.

Krech has been keeping his team — which finished the 2019 season with a record of 3-15-1 — busy with non-soccer activities this fall. He and his team have been focused on mental health, leadership and diversity, and inclusion with weekly meetings, guest speakers, college alumni and other resources. Recently, peer health educators did a workshop with the team — many of whom have not played a competitive match in almost a year — to help players deal with stress.

“We tried to have some [soccer] conversations earlier on in the year, but I learned it’s really hard to talk about shape and formations and tactics without being able to go onto a field and actually putting it into live play,” the coach said. “I think not having a season has allowed us to focus on other things in general more.”

“I’m a senior now so I’m feeling like I don’t really get my senior season, but just being able to practice with the girls and be on campus in general has been a giant positive for me,” said Webb, who made the team as a walk-on. “I think just being a part of this team and trying to make a difference has definitely been more important to me than playing.”

The team has also been having discussions on team culture and staying positive, which Krech said “will hopefully put us into a position for next time we’re able to have a normal season that we’ll have our culture firmly embedded within the program.”

Vs. Cancer was built by athletes for athletes, giving them the platform to raise money for childhood cancer. Founder Chase Jones experienced childhood cancer in 2016 when he was diagnosed with a Stage IV brain tumor as a freshman baseball player at the University of North Carolina. As a result, his team rallied around him during treatment and began raising funds to support their local hospital.

There are currently 266 Vs. Cancer collegiate teams, 26 professional minor league teams and more than 220 high school teams, including St. Mary’s Ryken High School.

For more information about the Vs. Cancer Foundation, call 800-253-6530 or go to the SMCM website at team.curethekids.org/stmaryscollegeofmarylandwomenssoccer2019 or the site www.curethekids.org/mission.

Twitter: @MichaelSoMdNews

Libraries in SOMD still operating on a limited basis

Although library systems in Southern Maryland are now operating on a more limited basis as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the state, librarians are ensuring the community still has access to most of the free services normally available.

While Charles County Public Library branches have been closed to the public since the beginning of the pandemic, St. Mary’s County Library branches reopened on a limited basis earlier but had to once again close its doors beginning this week.

“It is with heavy hearts that we make these changes,” Michael Blackwell, St. Mary’s library director, said in a release. “We were one of the first libraries in Maryland to restore in-branch services, and rolling back some services is as unwelcome for us as for our customers. We make these changes to maintain as many essential services as possible while trying to ensure the safety of the community. We look forward to the day when we can reopen completely for our full hours with all our services.”

Curbside services at libraries in Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties will continue for now. When picking up, customers should wear a mask and should not leave their vehicles. Library staff will be wearing personal protective equipment and practicing social distancing during curbside transactions. Box drops should be used for returning all items. Appointments can be scheduled through the county library websites.

In St. Mary’s, appointments can also be made for computer, copier or fax machine use.

“Public access to computers is a really important service we want to provide for as long as we can,” Laura Boonchaisri, marketing and communications manager of St. Mary’s County Library, said this week. “We’re still providing services in the most efficient and safe way for customers and staff.”

In place of physical browsing of the library collections, systems in St. Mary’s and Charles counties offer “grab bags” which include selections of books and movies put together by library staff, as well as to-go craft kits for kids stuck at home.

Boonchaisri pointed out a large number of people signed up for library cards since the beginning of the pandemic and noted a “big uptick” in the amount of e-books getting checked out. She said between April and June, St. Mary’s libraries saw a 61% increase in digital checkouts over the same period in 2019 and a 42% increase between July and September.

While the library system already had a “really robust” digital collection, she said additional funds have been designated to securing more digital materials due to the pandemic. As far as programming, she said there “is stuff for all ages” being offered such as story activities for children and art classes for teens and adults.

Erin Del Signore, marketing manager for Charles public libraries, told Southern Maryland News this week that libraries across the state have worked together to create some “great virtual programming,” including talks with best-selling authors.

She said some new digital resources that have been launched during the pandemic and are free to the public include Freegal, a music streaming service, Kanopy, an application which provides access to thousands of movies and documentaries, and Brainfuse, an online homework help program.

According to the manager, Charles will also continue to utilize their mobile library and outreach van. While both vehicles provide library card services, pop-up programs, materials to check-out, a computer for public use and free Wi-Fi access for customers within a 100-foot radius of the vehicle, the mobile library also offers printing and copying services. A schedule for the vehicles can be found at www.ccplonline.org/mobile-library.

Public libraries in Calvert County opened in September on a limited basis after COVID-19 related closures and will remain open for now to residents willing to wear face coverings and social distance. Visits are to be kept short — under an hour — and curbside appointments are available to pick up materials on hold, print or copy jobs and 3D printing jobs.

Some services that haven’t been instated since the beginning of the pandemic include meeting or study room use and passport processing.

According to Robyn Truslow, public relations coordinator for Calvert Library, staff found a way to answer calls from home so they could rotate who was in the building, but continue to help customers at the same capacity. All four Calvert branches have a limit of how many people can occupy the building at once, with larger branches such as Prince Frederick holding 46 people and smaller branches, like the Fairview branch and Twin Beaches branch only holding 15 and 11 people at a time respectively.

In addition to “beefing up” their electronic collection, Truslow said the libraries invested in more hotspots, ordered Chromebooks, some with hotspots, for circulation, and offer virtual “programming of all sorts.”

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews

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COVID-19 reaches new peaks in Southern Maryland

New cases of COVID-19 are on the rise again, in some areas at a rate never seen before, causing Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to put in place new restrictions and some health officials to worry about the upcoming holiday season.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Hogan announced that, with some exceptions, hospitals and nursing homes would no longer be permitted to allow visitation, citing the increased load of cases as well as overcrowding at some Maryland hospitals.

Bars, restaurants and all facilities which serve food or alcohol are no longer allowed to operate in-person dining between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., beginning Friday, Nov. 20. Retail and religious institutions will have to operate at 50% capacity, starting Friday, and fans will no longer be allowed at stadiums and race tracks.

Nursing homes will be required to test all residents weekly, and staff, who travel in and out of the facilities more often, will be tested twice weekly.

In recent weeks, the tri-county area has seen some of its highest new COVID-19 case rates of all time.

In Charles County, Health Officer Dr. Dianna Abney said through a spokesperson for the health department that a month ago Charles was averaging about 10 to 15 new cases a day. Now, that average is 40 to 50 new cases per day.

The new case rate per every 100,000 residents in Charles has also exceeded any previous spike. During the first wave, the case rate spiked at 13.64 cases in mid-April. In early August, it reached a new high at 14 new cases per 100,000 residents.

A new high of 24 cases per 100,000 residents on Nov. 15 broke that record.

The newest cases appear to be occurring outside of nursing homes, where the virus caused a large amount of deaths in the spring.

In Calvert, the summertime trend of 15 to 20 new cases a week has increased to between 80 and 90, the health department said in a news posting over the weekend.

In St. Mary’s County, where the health department provides the most comprehensive publicly available data in the tri-county region, new COVID-19 diagnoses hit an all-time high on Monday, reaching 16.15 new cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day rolling average, and again increasing to 17.52 new cases on Tuesday.

That statistic previously peaked amid nursing home outbreaks in early June, where new cases peaked at 15.28 per 100,000 before hitting a sharp decline for the rest of the summer, with the exception of a smaller outbreak in July and August.

Dr. Meena Brewster, St. Mary’s health officer, said the newest cases were evident of community transmission of the virus outside of nursing homes.

Abney said contact tracing in Charles had identified the top exposure risks as indoor dining, family gatherings, indoor shopping, gatherings with over 10 people and traveling outside of the home for work.

“People are becoming lax in their adherence to public health instructions to wear masks, social distance, avoid crowds and wash their hands frequently,” Abney said. “They are getting what is being called ‘COVID fatigue.’”

Colder weather also forces more people indoors, where the virus tends to spread due to less ventilation and less ability to dissipate, she said, a trend which has been seen before with cold and flu viruses.

With transmission occurring mostly outside of nursing homes, death and hospitalization rates, which have still increased slightly, are not at the level they were at the spring.

In St. Mary’s, no new COVID-19 deaths have been reported since mid-October, but hospitalizations have increased, with nine people hospitalized in the week preceding last Thursday. Hospitalizations peaked at 17 hospitalizations during two days in May.

In Charles, deaths have not increased significantly, Abney said, with one death in October and two deaths in November. Deaths peaked there in the springtime, with 47 deaths in April and 32 in May. Currently, hospitalizations are averaging at 10, lower than the springtime high of 27 patients.

In Calvert, there are six patients at CalvertHealth hospital who are either positive or under investigation for COVID-19. The county has totaled 29 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and one probable death due to the virus.

However, the county has also faced a recent outbreak at the Calvert County Nursing Center, where Calvert Health Officer Larry Polsky confirmed there were 34 residents and 11 staff who had tested positive over the past three weeks, however 26 of those residents and nine of the staff have not developed any symptoms.

Three of the residents with symptoms have been hospitalized.

But with the increase of cases occurring directly before the holiday season, health officers are asking residents to avoid unnecessary travel.

The counties, as well as the state, have issued health advisories to avoid out-of-state travel, especially in states with a significant increase in cases, which includes most other states.

The health officers recommended smaller gatherings, preferably limited to people who live together, or virtual gatherings.

Brewster recommended preparing traditional family recipes and delivering them to neighbors in a way that involves no contact.

Those who still choose to celebrate in-person are encouraged to spread out guests from different households and remain 6 feet apart, Brewster said, should avoid any close contact and should wear masks. Outdoor gatherings are recommended, and guests should wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer which contains 60% alcohol.

For indoor gatherings, ventilation can be increased by opening windows. Outdoors, open-air tents are OK, and Abney said enclosed tents provide less ventilation. She said the bottom 12 inches can be rolled up to allow more ventilation.

Abney suggested avoiding singing or shouting, which releases more viral particles into the air, and recommended turning the music down at celebrations, so guests do not have to speak as loud.

“The holiday season can cause the spike to last longer,” Abney said. “Family gatherings and traveling can cause the cases to continue to rise or at least remain elevated.”

The cold weather also comes with the annual flu season, which Polsky said at a county commissioners meeting last week could lead to “bad news” when the two respiratory illnesses are combined.

Luckily, Brewster said local, state and national flu activity remains low, and she recommended seasonal flu vaccinations to prevent any impact to the local health care system. As of Monday, she said the St. Mary’s health department itself has vaccinated almost 800 individuals.

Staff writer Marty Madden contributed to this story. Twitter: @DanSoMdNews