MISSOULA — Last spring, a shelter in place order was mandated to mitigate the transmission of the novel coronavirus.
The University of Montana was forced to finish out the academic year with remote instruction.
As it did, plans were set in place to provide an on-campus experience the following fall semester.
With that fall semester now in the rearview mirror, UM will now be entering its third semester marked by COVID-19.
In terms of its COVID mitigation plan, UM expects more of the same for the upcoming spring semester.
“The fall was an achievement that we’re really proud of. It doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing by any stretch, but we’re really proud of it,” said Brock Tessman, the deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System.
“And a lot of work went into that. We’re aiming for the same kind of approach in the spring. We feel like we have good systems in place.”
Part of the systems set in place included a mask mandate and classrooms set up with limited capacity to enforce social distancing guidelines. Outdoor tent spaces were utilized initially for classroom instruction when weather permitted.
Health kits were also distributed to students and faculty. These contained masks, hand sanitizer, and surface disinfectant – all to help reduce the risk of COVID transmission and ensure that students could safely meet in person on campus.
Throughout this period, professors have shifted their teaching style utilizing multiple ways to teach class.
“There was a somewhat greater percentage of courses that were handled online either through remote delivery or asynchronously,” Tessman said.
With 2021 on the horizon, UM has committed itself to keeping campus open with as much in-person instruction as possible.
“We will, of course, change if we have to. But we really want to hang in there as much as we can,” Tessman said.
Part of the desire to keep campuses open pertains to equity issues and the fact that students are, in general, better off with in-person learning experiences.
“Everything we’ve heard about the fall is that if you go all remote and shut down those in-person experiences, first of all, everyone is significantly worse off in terms of their learning progress,” Tessman said.
“They’re worse off in terms of their extracurricular activities, their ability to seek advising and mentoring. They’re worse off in terms of their mental health.”
The impacts disproportionately affect low-income, first-generation, American Indian, and more rural students. On top of that, the university’s mitigation strategy this past semester seemed to work efficiently.
“By all accounts, including those from Missoula City-County Health Department, the mitigation that we put into place for our classrooms and learning spaces did work,” said Paula Short, the associate vice president for student communications at the University of Montana.
Relative to the city and surrounding county, UM had lower instances of COVID transmission.
“For most of the semester, UM cases accounted for less than 10% of the cases in Missoula,” Short said.
With the end of winter break in sight, a looming concern is having students come back to campus after traveling during the holidays. It will undoubtedly be a challenging moment where there will likely be an uptick in cases – something UM has been trying to get on top of through communication and education efforts.
“We’ve been sending students communications over the break about what they need to do as they prepare to come back to campus. So, things like if you can get a COVID test before you travel back to Missoula, do that.”
Students that have traveled out of state and are exhibiting symptoms have further been encouraged to delay their return.
Upon returning to UM campus, those experiencing symptoms are expected to get in touch with the Curry Health Center for a COVID test.
“We’ve developed a surge plan for anticipating that there may be more people seeking a symptomatic COVID test the first two weeks of the semester,” Short said.
Due to lack of resources, asymptomatic testing still remains a challenge for students at UM and, more generally, the entire state of Montana. Yet UM’s COVID response team, into the new semester, will continue to meet daily to look at the data on case rates.
The group also shares information on how COVID is moving in the campus and community to hopefully keep on top of the spread.
Structural changes will also tweak the academic schedule in hopes of mitigating the spread of COVID during the spring 2021 semester.
Most prominently, there will be no spring break and the semester will end earlier than normal. The last day of regular classes will fall on April 23 – followed by finals week.
For Reed Humphrey, the acting provost at the University of Montana, the preventative measures set in place should set UM up for a successful spring 2021 semester. He likes to use the term “cautiously optimistic” to describe his thoughts on UM’s future as it relates to COVID.
With vaccinations on their way, it is feasible that more and more of the campus population will be able to get vaccinated during the semester.
A vaccination plan is currently being worked on and Curry Health Center has been approved as a distribution center. The infrastructure also exists to administer the vaccine on campus.
However, Humphrey is careful to not feel overly confident in the coming months.
“Vaccinations are around the corner but so are the unknowns,” he said.
He is speculating that the calendar used this academic year might be used next year as well. This calendar year included a mid-August start with a Thanksgiving finish and a winter session.
“We haven’t completely arrived on that decision, but the most important thing is to provide clarity to students and to provide clarity to faculty so they can appropriately plan their summers and their fall,” he said.
A defining characteristic of the coronavirus pandemic continues to be its unpredictability. Just this week, news came of a mutant variant of the coronavirus spreading in the U.K.
“It’s a sort of stark reminder that you can’t let your guard down until this is over,” Humphrey said.