University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel laid out a plan for social distancing in dormitories and other campus spaces on Friday, shortly after the Board of Regents approved her fall reopening plan.
The board unanimously approved Gabel’s framework for the fall reopening of classrooms, residence halls and dining facilities under some social distancing measures. The plan approved Friday differed slightly from the one shown Thursday, in that it does not call for an earlier semester start date.
Some regents had voiced concern that an earlier start 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.
Under the final plan, classes will start on Sept. 8 with a plan to end in-person instruction by Thanksgiving. Teachers and students would switch to distance learning after Thanksgiving for any remaining assignments or exams.
“I feel very good about it,” Regent Michael Hsu said of the approved fall plan. He objected to a vote Thursday because of the proposed early start. “One week, it’s not worth the squeeze.”
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.
The university president explained her plan for campus residence and dining halls to reporters on Friday.
Dorms will be limited to single and double occupancy; typically, the university allows up to four students per room in campus residence halls. Dining halls will ditch the old-school cafeteria lines and offer only takeout.
Despite the stricter occupancy limit, there will be enough room for all students who want to live in residence halls, Gabel said.
In partnership with state health officials, U leaders determined it’s safe for students to live together because roommates essentially become a “family unit.”
“When you’re in your house, you don’t stay six feet away from your family members,” Gabel said. “We’re asking for a behavioral pledge in order to respect the safety of that family unit.”
That logic also applies to residence hall bathrooms, which are shared by more students, because the same students use them each day, Gabel said. “That’s considered within the recommended guidelines as they stand right now.”
Campus fraternities and sororities are developing their own housing guidelines with the help of public health experts.
U administrators will dedicate space in residence halls and off-campus hotels for students who need to quarantine. Students in isolation will have easy access to food, and faculty will stand ready to accommodate their learning.
“We want to make sure that any student who needs to quarantine can very easily, so that there’s no disincentive to self-identify and go into quarantine,” Gabel said.
University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black said he’s looking forward to seeing students, faculty and staff back on campus this fall. Plans for sports are still evolving, he said, with hockey schedules likely getting shortened. Student-athletes will report back as planned, but empty stands remain likely, Black added.
“Certainly we want to have fans in our fieldhouses, stadiums and arenas, but right now there are pretty strong limits on numbers there,” he said.
Uncertainty over masks
Gabel reiterated Friday that the university will recommend — not require — that students and faculty wear masks. Because of the U’s constitutional independence, she said, the school does not have to follow the Minneapolis indoor mask mandate, which includes educational institutions.
In a statement Friday, a spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey cast doubt on that notion.
“While Mayor Frey acknowledges that the University is in charge of the academic mission on their campus, he trusts that University leadership shares his strong commitment to protecting public health in Minneapolis and anticipates they would want to comply with the cloth mask requirement to help limit the spread of COVID-19,” spokesman Mychal Vlatkovich said.
Gabel said the U would align with the Minneapolis policy if legal advisers recommend it.
“At the moment, it’s a little more theoretical than a reality,” Gabel said. “When we get closer [to fall], we will update according to what the most current science is recommending.”
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.