DULUTH – Leaders of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s largest college may put all their classes online if administrators don’t meet demands to make the campus better prepared for the pandemic.
“It is difficult to imagine that we will be able to be in person for more than a few weeks with what we know of the current plan,” wrote the department heads of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering in a letter to UMD Chancellor Lendley Black. “We are risking our ability to deliver classes even remotely if we do not achieve these items very quickly.”
The letter, delivered Monday, identifies several “action items” they want the university to implement before classes start Aug. 31, including an on-campus testing site, daily updates on positive cases, notifications if students test positive and clear options for online alternatives for students.
“The incentive for a student to come to class with mild symptoms is higher if students feel that some of their professors will not give them reasonable options,” the letter states.
The financial stakes are high as some students are pulling out of fully online programs and waiting to start or resume college until the pandemic has subsided.
About half of all classes will be taught online-only at UMD this semester, though 80% of students will have at least one class featuring in-person instruction, according to the university.
UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said “faculty control their delivery mode and should be preparing their contingency plans.”
As far as testing demands, she said the university is following higher-ed guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), and the chancellor is in talks with college faculty to “recognize and address their concerns.”
“Information on positive cases will be communicated, as necessary, according to MDH guidelines,” she said. “UMD respects and will protect the private health records of our campus community members. As well, our students may seek medical care outside of UMD and therefore it is simply not possible for us to have completely accurate information on testing and cases related to our campus community members.”
Following the outbreaks at the University of North Carolina this month and its sudden shift to all-online classes, colleges nationwide are bracing for potentially similar outcomes as students are welcomed back on campus to start the semester.
“Some of our departments are considering transitioning all remaining classes fully online and e-mailing students why we need to do this, but we know this would be highly divisive if done at a department level,” states the letter, which is signed by nine department heads of the college.
Andrea Schokker, professor and head of the Civil, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, said the goal of the letter was to “get answers so we can have a good experience with students.”
“Cases have started to rise, and we want to be real clear we’re part of this community,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you think is going to happen, you can’t control this virus.”
Duluth and nearby Hermantown and Proctor have recorded 561 positive COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, about 80% of St. Louis County’s total confirmed cases. The county has seen cases rise 16% in the past week.
Before the pandemic, UMD was on track to have its first balanced budget in years after implementing $5.2 million in budget cuts devised last year.
“One of our concerns is that we don’t have a lot of redundancy” if instructors get sick, Schokker said. “We don’t want to see it fall apart.”
The Swenson College had 3,352 students last fall out of a campuswide enrollment of 10,858, according to U statistics. The college has the newest building on campus, the $44.6 million Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building, which opened last year.