The University of Minnesota announced Wednesday it’s canceling in-person classes at all five of its campuses, moving to online learning starting next week due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

The U, which has nearly 63,000 undergraduate and graduate students, is the first of Minnesota’s universities and colleges to move classes online so students and staff can participate from home and minimize group contact during the outbreak. It’s the first time in the U’s history that all classes have moved online, which will continue until at least April 1.

On Wednesday, officials confirmed the state has five cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by exposure to the novel coronavirus. While none involve students, U President Joan Gabel said the school’s “top priority remains the health, safety, and well-being” of the community.

“Due to COVID-19, we find ourselves responding to unique challenges that require innovative solutions,” Gabel said in a statement.

None of the campuses are closing and all employees were asked to report for work as standard. While Gabel encouraged students to do the online classes at home, residence halls, dining services and other student services will operate as normal. At the Morris and Crookston campuses, in-person classes are continuing through Friday and then students and staff are on spring break next week. Duluth, Rochester and Twin Cities campuses are all on spring break this week, which was slated to end Monday but is now extended until March 18.

The University of Wisconsin-Superior also announced Wednesday that it will move to online-only classes after extending spring break a week — now running from March 16 to 29.

Classes will continue as normal through the end of this week and then will be online-only from March 29 through at least April 13.

Across the border in Iowa, Grinnell College moved to online classes after its spring break, starting March 30. Elsewhere in Minnesota — from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul to Minnesota State’s 37 community colleges and universities — faculty are also preparing to move classes online but none have announced a decision to do so yet. In a statement, Minnesota State officials pointed out that the state Department of Health isn’t recommending that colleges and universities close or move to online learning.

Changing how they teach

While many college classes may already be taught online or tap online quizzes and curriculum, switching to deliver all classes exclusively online is a logistical challenge for universities and colleges. Some topics — from theater to ceramics or science — may be more difficult to teach remotely.

“The logistics; it’s tricky,” said Jennifer Moore, an associate professor in the communication department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “This is unprecedented and no one really knows how to do this.”

One of the three classes she teaches is already online, but she’s grappling with how to teach video production remotely.

“Everybody has to just manage their expectations and hope we can deliver as much content as we can online,” Moore said. “This is for the sake of public health.”

Paula Gudmundson, also an associate professor in Duluth, said it will be difficult to teach music theory and one-on-one flute lessons over video.

“That’s really hard to replicate,” she said, adding that she’s glad that housing and other services will still be open on campus for students in need. “This will be studied way in the future … how seriously people responded to it.”

In St. Paul, St. Thomas launched an online course on Tuesday to teach faculty how to move their classes online via video or web conferencing. St. Thomas, like other schools, is also working with any students who don’t have a laptop or internet access in case the private school moves to online-only classes.

In central Minnesota, St. Cloud State, which is the second largest in Minnesota State’s system, is also supporting international students who may not be able to travel home during the outbreak.

“We’re watching this very carefully,” said Dan Gregory, the provost at the 12,000-student university who messaged staff Wednesday to prepare for possible online-only classes. “The community response, quite honestly, has been pretty amazing.”

In Minneapolis, U electrical-engineering graduate student Seng-Wei Chieh, a father of a 2-year-old, said he supports the U’s decision to cancel in-person classes.

“Maybe some students don’t have internet access, but I think it’s a good idea, especially for people living with children or older people,” Chieh said.

Freshman Logan Magana, 19, said the coronavirus hasn’t had much of an effect on her day-to-day activities, though she worries about living away from her home in Los Angeles. She was apprehensive about remote classes. “For me, it’s going to be harder to do better in class because I get distracted online,” Magana said.

Travel concerns

Earlier this week, the U also canceled all university-funded international and domestic travel starting Monday through April 30, after previously canceling student programs to Italy, South Korea and China. The U’s decision followed Minnesota State’s to indefinitely suspend all international trips for students and faculty.

Himanshu Kharkwal, 26, a U computer science graduate student, said he has already canceled a personal trip back home to India to reduce his risk of infection. He said he’s worried about the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the university’s preparedness to contain it on campus.

Freshman Dante Ugalde, 19, is more worried about the effect of the coronavirus on his upcoming job as a transportation security officer at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “There’s a lot more risk when you’re actually working in places with widespread travel,” Ugalde said.