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UMD department heads request more detailed plans ahead of fall semester

Nine department heads in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering listed seven action items they'd like to see taken.

University of Minnesota Duluth UMD c02.JPG
An aerial view of the University of Minnesota Duluth. (2020 file / News Tribune)

Department heads in the University of Minnesota Duluth's Swenson College of Science and Engineering have outlined a list of seven COVID-19-related action steps they would like to take effect prior to a return to campus.

After UMD Chancellor Lendley Black requested suggestions that would help faculty be better prepared for the fall semester, a group of nine department heads sent a letter requesting more detailed plans, including clear guidance on what to do should a person in a face-to-face class test positive for COVID-19, on-campus testing for employees as well as what would "trigger a pullback," or pivot to fully remote and online learning.

"Administrators as well as the faculty, staff and students are all in really tough situations," said Andrea Schokker, the department head for civil, mechanical and industrial engineering who helped author the letter. "There are not easy answers. Our intent with the letter (was) just to have a direct reach out to our administration in a way that was in written form, very clear and asking for a timeline."

While Schokker said they figure the university has taken care of a lot of these questions, they're asking for clear answers they can provide to students and parents when they ask.

The letter outlined some of the "tough" questions department heads, who have been the point of contact over the summer for students, have regularly received, including questions about a testing plan, if everyone will be tested when they get back to school and what will happen if someone in class gets COVID-19.

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"While I’m sure your offices are dealing with this as well," the letter read, "we have no answers to these questions and no way to respond without dodging or making UMD sound unprepared. It is difficult to imagine that we will be able to be in person for more than a few weeks with what we know of the current plan."

UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams said many of the details faculty have requested have been distributed and posted online.

"No fault of the faculty. They've been trying to work their courses, and there's just a lot of messages. It's a lot to manage," Williams said. "Part of what we've communicated to faculty and staff is, 'We'll give you the information when we have it and it's available, but also we want to give it to you when it's the closest to the semester.'"

Of the seven action items outlined in the letter, Schokker said one of the biggest is knowing how leaders will determine if the university needs to pivot to all online and remote learning.

"What's the plan for if we start to see rising cases? I don't expect exact numbers, but we just would like to know in general, is there a plan?" Schokker said.

On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health released guidelines for how higher education institutions should handle different levels of COVID-19 cases and Williams said UMD will follow those guidelines.

In the letter, faculty requested a clear mechanism that notifies them if a student in one of their classes tests positive, while also recognizing that rules surrounding private medical data make that difficult.

Faculty will only know if a student in their class has COVID-19 if the student decides to tell them, and even then, they still can't disclose a student's medical information, Williams said. Another way they could be notified about a case is if a contact tracer finds that a certain class has been exposed to COVID-19, though the threshold for exposure is determined by 15 minutes of close contact.

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Guidance for faculty and staff directs that if they have reason to believe a student has COVID-19, they're to ask the student to contact UMD health services.

If faculty have reason to believe there has been a potential exposure on campus, the guidelines ask them to notify their department head without disclosing anyone's name. The department head then needs to contact UMD health services.

Despite requests for a universal set of guidelines informing when it might be appropriate for faculty to temporarily halt face-to-face instruction, it will ultimately be up to them to determine if they feel they need to do that, Williams said.

"The thing that's tough here is a student may not use our internal health services as their medical services," Williams said. "They may or may not tell us that."

On Wednesday, UMD students were emailed a flow sheet instructing them what steps to take if they have a confirmed or possible COVID-19 case. The instructions differ for students living on campus and those living off campus.

Another concern educators are facing as they approach the start of face-to-face instruction is the question of who will take their place if they're out sick with COVID-19.

"We want to have good education for students this fall," Schokker said. "If we have a decent number of people sick, especially our faculty, we don't have a lot of backup people to cover the courses. We're just trying to make sure that we can do everything we can so that we're not in a situation where we're having trouble getting education to the students."

This story was updated at 5:18 p.m. Aug. 19 with additional information. It was originally posted at 3:50 p.m. Aug. 19.

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