University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel is proposing that students move into campus dormitories at least two weeks later than expected and undergraduate classes be taught fully online for at least the first two weeks of the fall semester.
The Board of Regents will hold a special meeting Monday to consider Gabel’s proposal, which would affect undergraduate students at the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses. Fall plans at Crookston and Morris will remain unchanged because those U campuses are located in communities with lower counts of COVID-19 cases.
The proposal, announced Friday, comes on the heels of widely publicized outbreaks at colleges such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame. It also follows guidance from White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx that colleges should have the capacity to conduct up to 10,000 tests per day; currently, the U plans to test only students who are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone infected.
“As we watch our peers and process this recommendation from Dr. Birx, we know that our plan must continue to adapt,” Gabel wrote to students. “Our mission means little if we place any member of our campus community in high-risk situations that could otherwise be mitigated.”
Fall classes start Sept. 8 at the U’s Twin Cities and Rochester campuses and Aug. 31 at the Duluth campus. Classes for the roughly 38,000 undergraduates at the three campuses would still start on time under Gabel’s proposal but would be taught online initially, with limited exceptions. About 70% of fall classes at the Twin Cities campus are already slated to be taught fully online.
Graduate and professional students will continue with their planned schedules. Faculty, staff and researchers who have already been approved to work on campus may continue to do so.
Twin Cities students were scheduled to begin moving their belongings into campus residence halls on Aug. 30. First-year and transfer students at Duluth were set to move in next week.
In a message to students Friday, the university’s Housing and Residential Life office wrote that housing and dining contracts will be prorated should regents approve Gabel’s proposal. Students can still request to cancel their housing contract or defer it to the spring semester.
Amy Ma, student body president at the U’s Twin Cities campus, said the existing plan for reopening “would not have been safe.” Administrators put the burden of success on students with a fall plan that relies more on adherence to social distancing and less on thorough testing and monitoring, she said. “If the university’s best plan is that students aren’t going to go out and party, then I don’t think that is a solid plan,” Ma said.
Regent Michael Hsu called the U’s existing testing plan “weak” and noted that the school does not plan to publicly track student COVID-19 cases through a dashboard or other accessible tool. “I don’t think we’re ready to open up,” he said.
Michael Osterholm, director of the U’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, disputed Hsu’s comments, saying the school’s testing plan is informed by sound public health guidance. “The university has had some of the best public health science on this topic of anywhere in the country,” he said.
If regents approve the delay, Gabel said the U will monitor changing federal and state guidelines, the availability of rapid testing capacity and the number of new cases in college-aged adults to determine how to move forward.
“Your actions during the coming weeks will significantly impact our ability to move forward,” Gabel said. “When we all work together, we can dramatically slow the spread of COVID-19 and improve our chances of returning to campus.”