The University of Minnesota Board of Regents received a recommendation from system president Joan Gabel to resume some in-person instruction in the fall and to open residence and dining facilities to capacities consistent with public health guidelines.
The plan also outlines a need for COVID-19 self-monitoring for symptoms, contact tracing, testing and isolation. It also requests in-person instruction end by Thanksgiving since public health experts are expecting a surge in COVID-19 cases in the fall.
"The key and the spine in all of these recommendations that you're about to hear about is flexibility," Gabel told the board during a virtual meeting Thursday. "Flexibility to meet the needs of our faculty, staff and students, flexibility so that we can maintain the highest quality amidst their different needs and flexibility so that we may adapt as conditions may change."
Gabel's recommendation is subject to the board's final approval in July unless a special session is held before then.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, world-renowned infectious-disease expert and director of the U of M's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, has reviewed and approved the plan, as have others affiliated with the center and the Minnesota Department of Health, Gabel said.
Many of the details of the plan still need to be determined, like how the university system would go about ceasing in-person instruction by Thanksgiving. The options presented included starting the semester earlier than Labor Day, pivoting to remote learning after Thanksgiving or a combination of both. Each campus in the system would adjust its own academic calendar.
University of Minnesota Duluth spokesperson Lynne Williams said UMD is still working through that, with no final decisions other than starting the semester as originally scheduled.
An email to UMD students Friday stated that the campus's goal is to reduce student travel between campus and their family homes, which could involve staying with the traditional calendar and ending in-person instruction before Thanksgiving break.
During Thursday's meeting, Regent Michael Hsu of Blaine, Minnesota, said he was concerned about starting the semester earlier than what students are used to since many students live in off-campus housing where leases don't start until Sept. 1.
"Having a bunch of homeless students trying to figure out where they're going to put their stuff, while they're also trying to start classes, I think it's not really worth the one week," Hsu said, adding that the plan didn't make clear how much earlier the fall semester would start.
In response, Gabel said the university has begun consulting with an association of landlords and that the university has alternative housing in place for students who can't agree to an earlier move-in date with their landlords.
"There is not one thing that has been asked about that we have not anticipated, planned for, vetted against the science, consulted against and then included in the plan," Gabel said.
An executive order from Gov. Tim Walz permits in-person instruction with groups no larger than 25 people. To keep classes small, the fall recommendation includes extending classroom hours to 10 p.m. and possibly even offering some courses on Saturdays. Classroom capacity constraints will ultimately determine how many in-person courses can be offered in the fall, said Rachel Croson, executive vice president and provost of the U of M.
"Our proposal is not that all instruction will happen in person, it is that some instruction (in-person) will occur," Croson said, later adding that university is committed to supporting faculty and staff who would prefer to teach or work remotely. Additionally, students concerned about COVID-19 exposure or those who cannot participate in person, like international students, should have access to alternative modes of taking a course.
"We will also encourage and empower faculty to consider creative mechanisms to achieve physical business," Croson said. One example she shared was rotating a portion of the class that attends in-person courses each day.
Regardless of the modality in which courses resume in the fall, tuition will remain the same as the previous year, Gabel said.
Regent David McMillan of Duluth asked if a mask mandate can be considered in order to protect more vulnerable campus populations.
Based on to-date science, Gabel said the university would only encourage those on campus to wear masks and not mandate it under the plan.
"What we have been doing is relying on the science with the understanding that the science is evolving," she said. "So where things are right now is that the mask is particularly helpful if you're closer than 6 feet."