In less than a month the College of St. Scholastica will be welcoming its first wave of students as they move into residence halls that have been largely vacant since March.

Campus leaders across the college have spent the summer developing and coordinating plans on how to bring students back to campus as safely as possible, and for St. Scholastica Director of Residential Life Elliott Johnston, one of the biggest obstacles during that process has been how suddenly plans can change.

"You spend three days writing a really detailed plan and then right as you're about to submit it for publication, everything changes," Johnston said. "So one of the biggest challenges is, how do we make sure students are aware of accurate, detailed plans and not be vague."

At this point in the summer, the plan for on-campus housing is, for the most part, finalized and relies on guidelines established by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Private College Council.

As of last week, St. Scholastica was at about 85% capacity in its on-campus housing for the fall semester. Of the 918 beds available, 718 have been assigned. A wing of 20 beds has been set aside for quarantining purposes.

An isolation unit will be in a basement area where other students aren't living. It will be available for those confirmed sick and in need of care from the campus clinic.

With some students concerned about living in a congregate setting during a pandemic, Johnston said the college is being more flexible in letting people out of their housing contracts.

First- and second-year students at St. Scholastica are required to live on campus unless residing with a legal guardian within a certain radius of the school. The college has extended that radius due to the pandemic to allow more students the option of living off campus. This has resulted in lower housing numbers for first-year students.

Katie Brostrom will be a sophomore at St. Scholastica this fall living in an on-campus apartment with three other students, two to a bedroom, which the state health department says schools can do safely.

If St. Scholastica was any bigger, Brostrom, who's also a volleyball player at the college, said she might be more concerned about returning to living in a congregate setting this fall. She, like many of her peers, is eager for some return to normalcy after so long away.

"I really want to return because it's been about five months and the big thing about college was being away, having your own independence," Brostrom said. "At home you don't have that same sense of independence."

Safety measures

The college plans to discourage, but not ban, student residents from having guests over to their apartments and dorm rooms. Anytime a guest visits someone else's room, everyone in attendance will be required to wear a face covering. Roommates will not be required to wear face coverings in each other's presence.

Based on a recommendation from the state health department, the college is still allowing people in common lounging areas because it's deemed safer for students to gather in larger spaces with better ventilation than cramming into their rooms.

"Our lounges are still usable but we are taking out sofas and leaving just single-occupancy chairs to enforce and encourage 6-foot distancing," Johnston said.

Since every dorm room has a sink, residents will be encouraged to maintain hygiene, like teeth-brushing, in their rooms. Students will be required to wear a face covering while on their way to the communal showers and restroom.

If somebody has to isolate or quarantine, St. Scholastica will encourage those students to return home during that time if they can. The college will be more strict on that with individuals who had contracted the virus from behaving in risky behavior, like attending parties.

"One of things that we're still working on is sort of what is the community standard expectation," Johnston said. "We haven't finalized what will be any consequences, but RAs (resident assistants) will be our on-the-ground front-runners so they will be instrumental in enforcing that and then we have live-in professional staff as well."

As for on-campus dining, the dining rooms have been reconfigured for safety, according to St. Scholastica spokesperson Robert Ashenmacher. Sanitation procedures and to-go options will be available at every dining location to encourage physical distancing.

Dining service employees will undergo safety training ahead of the fall semester and will be screened on a daily basis.

Signs taped to the doors of a back entrance to Tower Hall warn that the building is closed to all College of St. Scholastica faculty, staff and students. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Signs taped to the doors of a back entrance to Tower Hall warn that the building is closed to all College of St. Scholastica faculty, staff and students. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

In May, the college announced that it would be offering a mix of in-person and virtual teaching methods. Faculty who are concerned about teaching face-to-face can request remote work, said Ryan Sandefer, vice president for academic affairs.

All classes are being prepared for hybrid delivery, which means students will have a remote-delivery option if they have COVID-19-related concerns about attending a class.

Exceptions include classes where coursework can't be done remotely, such as labs, clinical skills-related courses and potentially courses in the arts.

"In those cases, accommodations will be addressed on a case-by-case basis," Sandefer said.

With a face-covering policy in place, the college will provide a face mask or two to both employees and students.

Monitoring, testing and tracing

Before they can bring students back to campus, the state of Minnesota requires that higher education institutions develop plans that address how they're going to do testing, tracing and monitoring for COVID-19.

Christine Sandal, a registered nurse and the college's clinic manager, has been working through the summer to help figure that out.

Through electronic medical records, students will receive an email every day asking them to complete a daily symptom checker. The college's registered nurses will be notified if students report anything of concern.

"Students will be asked to stay put and told that they're not to attend any activities until they're contacted by Student Health Service and then we'll review symptoms," Sandal said. "It will also allow us to find the people who haven't done the symptom checker to follow up and see why it's not being done."

The daily check-in process will be slightly different for employees, who will be going through human resources.

The five-person campus clinic will provide tests to those who are symptomatic or have had close contact with a COVID-19 case. The tests will be sent to the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic for lab work.

"Some of us are nine-month employees and some are 10-month employees, but we're working through the summer to prepare ourselves to be ready for the testing and to familiarize ourselves with it," Sandal said.

St. Scholastica will work with the health department to conduct contact tracing following the confirmation of COVID-19 cases.

Sandal acknowledged that a safe return this fall might require a shift in campus culture, too.

"One of the things that we always kind of hold dear to our hearts is we always hold the door open for people," she said. "But now the best thing for people might be that you have to keep going and not have that close contact. It's a kind of a total 180 shift of what does it mean to treat others with respect and care for our community."