University of Minnesota students at the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses will have to wait at least two weeks to find out if they can move into dorms and return to the classroom this fall.
The U's Board of Regents voted 8-3 Monday to delay the opening of dormitories and the start of in-person undergraduate classes by at least two weeks at the three campuses. The decision was met with mixed reactions from the campus communities, with some frustrated by the sudden switch and others relieved that officials are approaching the semester carefully.
"Despite extensive preparation, research, planning and advice, the landscape is shifting yet again and we need to re-evaluate our fall plans," U President Joan Gabel said. "I want to express to all of our students, particularly those who are moving on campus for the first time, how much we ache for their lost experiences."
Administrators said the delay will give them more time to evaluate public health conditions and new federal guidance for colleges on COVID-19 testing. They soon will make a permanent decision on whether to reopen dorms and classrooms this fall. That choice will be made before the deadline for tuition refunds, Gabel noted.
The regents' decision is a departure from the original plan to open on time and comes just days before Duluth and Twin Cities students were to move into residence halls. Campus housing and dining contracts will be prorated to reflect the delay.
Classes for the roughly 38,000 undergraduates at the three campuses will still start on time but will be taught online initially, with limited exceptions. Graduate and professional students will continue with their planned schedules. 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 move follows outbreaks at colleges such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame. It also comes after new White House guidance that colleges should be able to conduct up to 10,000 tests per day; the U plans to test only students who are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone infected.
Regents were conflicted about the vote Monday as some questioned what difference a two-week delay will make. In their 2½-hour discussion, they also grappled with the potential consequences of reopening campus during a pandemic.
"We have to remember that getting this wrong means people dying," regent Mike Kenyanya said.
Michael Osterholm, director of the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told regents there would likely be large campus outbreaks if the fall semester proceeded as planned. There also could be some hospitalizations, he said, and possibly even deaths of students or older faculty members.
Regent Janie Mayeron said many students e-mailed her before the meeting stating they were willing to assume the risks that come with returning to campus. But it is not just the students' health that would be at risk, she said.
"Any risk they decide to take … is a risk to the community," Mayeron said.
Regents Richard Beeson, Darrin Rosha and Michael Hsu voted against the delay.
Rosha argued that students might pose a decreased risk to the community if they live on campus with young adults who are less likely to suffer a serious bout of COVID-19. There will be community transmission regardless, he added. If U leaders do opt for an online semester, they should consider a "significant reduction in tuition," Rosha said.
Beeson pushed for a final decision Monday, saying he was doubtful the delay would yield much more evidence than the university already has to make its decision.
"We're shrinking this already truncated semester to a point where it becomes almost a contrived fall and almost a summer camp-like experience," Beeson said. The university plans to conclude all in-person instruction by Thanksgiving.
Before Monday's meeting, students were organizing in support and opposition of the potential delay.
In a letter to regents Friday, student government leaders from the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses wrote they could not support the reopening of campus classrooms and dormitories unless the school implements greater testing and safety procedures. Student safety "must be prioritized," they said.
Conversely, more than 1,700 people signed a petition demanding students be allowed to move into campus dormitories as planned.
John Righeimer of Hayward, Wis., was disappointed by the regents' decision. His son, Jack, transferred to the Duluth campus this fall to major in theater. Righeimer lamented that his son and other students are "being robbed of a college experience." He said he hopes administrators are evaluating each campus instead of taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
"It just seems like if the Twin Cities are going to do it, everybody has got to do it. And that's frustrating," Righeimer said.