Montana University System honing guidelines for safe return to campus instruction

Just as universities and colleges across Montana were solidifying plans for reopening last week, the state recorded its highest one-day tally for coronavirus cases at 221.

But the Montana University System is trudging forward with plans for a safe return to campus instruction and on Tuesday, the Board of Regents held a special meeting to discuss new guidelines to lead schools into the fall semester.

Deputy Commissioner Brock Tessman noted the limitation of the Healthy Fall 2020 task force, which was established earlier this year to provide guidelines for schools diverse in size and purpose, ranging from two-year colleges to those with graduate and professional schools.

The situation is constantly evolving at the state and national level, causing a ripple effect for colleges and universities everywhere. For this reason, Tessman said, the task force is still monitoring the situation and making changes as necessary.

“We have to plan for an in-person experience in the fall if we want to have that on the table as an option,” Tessman said.

The task force honed in on 11 different planning areas and divided recommendations into essential items and planning considerations. The subjects cover a range of tenants including quality instruction, student housing, food services and campus visitation, among others.

All of the planning recommendations are adaptable for different campuses. For example, Tessman said, two-year colleges that did not provide housing before will not have to develop a plan for this sector.

But “if they don’t have a plan, they need to explain why,” Tessman said.

Campuses are required to establish classroom occupancy, traffic flow and course scheduling that minimizes health risks, as well as develop flexible plans to transition to online learning. In terms of housing, schools should expect to develop occupancy plans, campus cleaning procedures and quarantine spaces for residents awaiting COVID-19 tests.

Some planning recommendations are more specific, like staggered meal times or creating a COVID-19 Athletic Coordination Team. Others are open to interpretation, like expanding mental health outreach and treatment strategies.

The guidelines also include a statement on a requirement for face coverings for the entire university system, complete with a description of acceptable masks, exceptions for wearing them and accountability procedures.

“We wanted to equip campuses with a framework for disciplinary action if that is warranted,” Tessman said.

For repeated and willful noncompliance, the task force recommends directing the student to leave the classroom and reporting them to the appropriate division head.

“A successful fall is a collective responsibility,” Tessman said. “If we want that in-person experience, this is what it’s going to take.”

Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She welcomes any constructive discourse about her reporting; you can contact her at agp2147@barnard.edu