Campus life at the University of Minnesota would return to near normalcy this fall under a plan that school leaders presented to the Board of Regents Thursday, with the reopening of classrooms, dormitories and common spaces under some social distancing restrictions.
President Joan Gabel’s fall reopening plan stresses flexibility, with the resumption of in-person instruction and campus life in addition to a robust offering of online courses. It also includes a comprehensive plan for COVID-19 monitoring, testing and isolation, as well as a recommendation that each of the U’s five campuses adjust their academic calendars to start the semester early and end in-person instruction by Thanksgiving.
The board endorsed the fall reopening plan Thursday and is expected to-- vote at its next meeting in July.
“We believe that we are as safe as any place to be able to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Gabel said. “It is our number one priority, and we are prepared with extensive planning to be able to do so.”
The first face-to-face classes will roll out in the final weeks of the school’s summer session in July, Gabel said, giving students an opportunity to get ahead or catch up on coursework. University leaders are planning for the fall semester to start a week early and pivot to distance learning by Thanksgiving for any remaining assignments or final exams.
Accommodations will be made in residence halls, dining facilities, classrooms and common spaces to promote social distancing. Students at the U’s five campuses will have access to alternative format and “multimodal” classes if their physical classrooms and lecture halls aren’t conducive to social distancing. The university will offer more evening and Saturday classes to limit how many classes occur in a given building each day.
If social distancing is still recommended in the fall, instructors will have the freedom to decide whether to hold classes in person or remotely. The same flexibility will be offered to students.
Those who cannot take classes in person, such as international students struggling with visa issues or those with underlying health conditions, will have access to virtual curricula.
The university will recommend — not require — that students and faculty wear masks, Gabel said. Masks will be provided.
Regent David McMillan felt that a mask mandate would be the “safest approach” to protect students and faculty who are more vulnerable. Gabel responded that mask-wearing has been a major point of discussion, and leaders opted for a “strong recommendation” in combination with social distancing. But, she said, faculty will have the autonomy to set whatever standard they want within their classrooms.
University leaders are also working on a public health campaign encouraging healthy behavior and exploring a potential community code of conduct for students and faculty returning to campus.
Rachel Croson, the U’s executive vice president and provost, said the school has sufficient COVID-19 testing capability and enough space to isolate anyone who falls ill. Administrators plan to dedicate spaces in residence halls and off-campus hotels for those under quarantine, she said.
An on-campus team is capable of carrying out contact tracing for the entire university population, Croson said. And a COVID-19 committee co-chaired by Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar and Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy director Dr. Michael Osterholm will advise leaders on the latest testing and screening protocols.
“This continues to be a challenging time, and there is much uncertainty,” Croson said.
Regent Richard Beeson said reopening the university is “the right thing to do.” But he urged administrators to plan for potentially large clusters of COVID-19 cases.
“We live in a fishbowl, and we have to be prepared psychologically for the likelihood of having some sort of outbreak,” he said.
Some regents expressed concern that an earlier semester start date could create problems for students needing to move into apartments around campus. Many student housing complexes offer one-year leases with mid-August move-out dates to make way for new students to move in at the beginning of September.
Gabel said U officials have asked landlords near the Twin Cities campus to speed up the cleaning period between leases so students can move in earlier.
“We’ve already started working as a community to partner to support our students,” she said.