ST. PAUL — The University of Minnesota will delay the start of in-person classes and postpone move-in dates at three campuses under a plan approved Monday by the university's board of regents in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Students at the U of M campuses in Duluth and Rochester were scheduled to move into university housing beginning Wednesday and Saturday, respectively, with Twin Cities students slated to move in beginning Sept. 2. All three campuses will now have to push their move-in dates back by at least two weeks.

The fall academic term will still begin as scheduled on all three campuses, but with undergraduate courses held wholly online, also for a minimum of two weeks, with limited exceptions.

Board members approved the plan university President Joan Gabel presented to them at a special meeting Monday by a vote of 8-3. In her remarks to the board, Gabel said the plan was "extraordinarily difficult" to put forward, but defended it as necessary in light of new public health information.

"No one likes this. No one is enjoying this. No one is benefiting from this," she said. "All of us would love to have our students back on campus. It’s what we do for a living. It’s what we’re fulfilled by. It’s what our work is all about. But we also know we have to do this in a way that puts safety first."

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In an open letter to the campuses published last week, Gabel said the delays would provide additional time "to evaluate new and emerging federal testing guidance" and "continue evaluation of techniques used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19." University health officials said they were especially taken aback at recent comments made by Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Birx suggested in a phone call — the records of which were obtained and reported by the Center for Public Integrity — that higher education institutions would have to be able to conduct 5,000-10,000 tests for COVID-19 in a single day in the event of an outbreak. While her comments do not constitute formal guidance, Gabel said in last week's letter, they still "do not align" with the university's mitigation plan.

The university developed its mitigation plan based on official recommendations from state and federal public health departments that Birx's comments would seem to contradict. Speaking to board members at Monday's meeting, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the university's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said they are the latest in a series of mixed messages that federal officials are sending to their state and local counterparts.

Without a national mitigation plan or a sufficient supply of testing materials, Osterholm said, most states can't even conduct tests at that scale, let alone most universities.

"I can create a walking path to the moon easier," Osterholm said.

2,400 Duluth students affected

University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black said at the board of regents meeting that UMD is ready no matter what the board decided.

Black said UMD has been monitoring what’s happening with COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County and Duluth.

“I share the comments that have been made about the potential danger of our young people spreading the virus, and I’ve received communications from a number of faculty on the UMD campus about their concerns of students spreading the virus on campus,” Black told the board.

Move-in for first-year students at UMD was scheduled to begin Wednesday, with the rest of the student body moving on campus Saturday and Sunday. Black said the decision to delay move-in will affect about 2,400 students.

“Our off-campus students have already moved in and we’ve already heard reports of parties and gatherings among them,” Black said. “I’ve also sent out communications to the bar owners in the area, pleading with them to be our partner in helping enforce all COVID-related precautions and to do what they can to help our students stay safe, but ultimately, it’s a gamble in a number of ways.”

Abdi Ali, UMD student representative to the board of regents, said any gamble with student, faculty, staff or community members' health and lives isn’t worth it. Ali said he and many students were not only upset by the last-minute decision, but that it wasn't to make the fall semester online only.

“Overall, my personal feelings are if there’s any sort of risk, then why take it?” Ali said. “If even one student dies because of the university's actions to bring students back on campus, especially freshmen living on campus with hundreds of other students, then was the risk worth it? Personally, I believe it is not."

Ali also said he’s worried about the Duluth community as a whole.

“I believe that it’s going to hit the Duluth community even harder because you’re bringing in more students that are asymptomatic into our community and spread it to the more vulnerable population, and it’s going to show in St. Louis County and I believe there will be a huge spike,” Ali said.

Ali, a senior political science and economics major, said he’s talked to students ranging from incoming freshmen to outgoing seniors, and though they all have different opinions about whether the fall semester should be online, they all have expressed frustration with the university system making the decisions so late.

Connor Kropp, a senior communications major at UMD, said he understands the situation is tough and doesn’t “envy those who are in positions to make the hard choices.”

“No matter what they do, someone will be upset,” he said. “Obviously, at the end of the day, the goal should be to keep as many students as safe as possible.”

Kropp said the two-week delay isn’t the best news for current students right now but he understands the decision.

“At this point, I anticipate that we will soon be told that the remainder of the semester will move to online instruction only,” Kropp said. “I am the first person who will say that I much prefer to be in person for classes, but I’m afraid that returning to campus at this time is unrealistic and dangerous.”

Sorting out details

Monday's decision follows outbreaks and abrupt changes of plans at universities and colleges elsewhere in the U.S., including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame. Officials said they presented it as an option to the board bearing those outbreaks — and the apparent change in federal guidance — in mind.

Board members questioned Monday whether the plan they ultimately approved was necessary or could be altered. Regent Janie Mayeron suggested the university might, for example, move classes online for the first two weeks but still allow students into their dorms.

Gabel said that option would still pose health risks, however, and might require that students be charged for living on campus without the real freedom of being able to leave their rooms. Under the plan approved Monday, student housing and dining contracts will be prorated by two weeks.

At the urging of board members, however, Gabel said the university would publish campus-specific coronavirus testing results to better inform their future decisions as well as the public. Whether the results will appear in the form of an online dashboard, as some board members suggested, remains to be seen.

Parts of the three campuses will remain open under the proposal approved Monday, including those that offer university health services, while university dormitories will still be open for international students and others for whom no alternative living arrangements are available.

Still, officials said, the delays are likely to impact university finances. Prorating housing and food contracts, according to estimates presented Monday, could cost the three campuses a combined $5 million.

Officials estimate the three campuses could together lose an additional $6 million this academic year for each percentage point by which enrollment declines, though the impact of Monday's decision on enrollment and registration figures is not clear.

Plans approved Monday will not affect graduate students at the Duluth, Rochester and Twin Cities campuses because they make up a smaller percentage of the overall student population. Nor will they affect campuses at Crookston and Morris, a decision university officials said has to do with their lesser likelihood for community transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Crookston and Morris campuses have already allowed students to move in.

News Tribune reporter Adelle Whitefoot contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 4 p.m. Aug. 24 with quotes from UMD Chancellor Lendley Black and students. It was originally posted at 1:34 p.m. Aug. 24.