Fearing coronavirus spread, University of Utah moves most classes online and BYU cancels spring graduation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An empty University of Utah campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, during spring break foreshadows what is to come as the U.'s professors prepare to move classes online due to the coronavirus outbreak around the globe.

The University of Utah will transition most of its classes online starting next week as a precaution as the coronavirus spreads across the country. And, as other universities in the state weigh doing the same, Brigham Young University has announced it will cancel its graduation ceremonies this spring.

Those plans rippled through higher education here Wednesday after the third Utahn was diagnosed with the illness — followed by a report by The Athletic that Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a fourth Utahn, also has tested positive.

At the U., class will be canceled Monday and Tuesday so that professors have time to prepare. By Wednesday, March 18, most courses will stop meeting face-to-face, with exceptions for some that require that format, such as labs or art performances.

“On a decision this big, we are certainly working through all of the logistics of it," said U. spokesman Chris Nelson.

Nelson declined to speak about the move, saying the university would announce its decision formally Thursday at 9 a.m. and “provide detailed information” at that point along with other Utah colleges. But professors at the flagship school had already confirmed it on social media Wednesday evening and sent emails to their students letting them know about the plan.

Paul Reeve, who teaches in the History Department, tweeted that “internal and external communication don’t match up here" after the U. said it would make an announcement Wednesday and then pushed it back a day. He wrote: “University of Utah transitioning all classes, regardless of class size, to online only beginning Monday, March 16. Buckle up and be patient. Probably going to be a bumpy ride.”

Another professor who teaches in the School of Business wrote in an email to students shared with The Salt Lake Tribune that his class wouldn’t be as effective online, though he supports the move.

“Obviously this is not ideal for anyone involved," he said. "... But it’s the wise and prudent thing to do. People’s lives are at-risk and that has to take precedence over our preferences or we’re no kind of civilization deserving of the name.”

Transitioning to online classes next week comes as students will be returning from spring break. Initially, the U. had planned to bar anyone from coming back to campus that had traveled to an area where the virus is present.

Instead, classes will now move online for the remaining five weeks of the semester to avoid large gatherings where the illness could spread. The U. has 33,000 students and 23,700 employees that stretch over main campus and a bustling medical complex.

The U. is also canceling and postponing events. That includes a major medical symposium scheduled for March 27, tweeted Willard Dere, the associate vice president for research at the U.

Likewise, BYU has canceled or postponed all “large events” on campus. A letter from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the school, notes that decision includes: “commencements, convocations, devotionals, conferences, public lectures, performances and concerts," and it will be in place during this spring’s graduation ceremonies.

The private school, though, will continue to hold class for the time being — while advising teachers that they can move coursework online if it’s best for them.

Several students there said they were disappointed they wouldn’t be able to don their cap and gown.

Meanwhile, at the U. many raised concerns on social media about the move to online, with some saying they struggle to learn when not in a classroom and others noting they major in dance or music that doesn’t translate well to a computer. A few questioned whether they would get money back from the school since tuition is meant to cover, in part, the use of a facility.

It’s unclear what going online now will mean for graduation ceremonies there. Additionally, students who live on campus will be allowed to stay in their housing and continue getting meals, but the school hasn’t said yet how that will work.

The U. is expected to discuss those issues Thursday.

In the meantime, graduate student Devon Cantwell has started an online survey to see how students might be impacted and how the school could provide resources. Most of the 60 who have responded, so far, have been worried about losing on-campus jobs, not being able to afford food and not having access to the internet at home.

Cantwell would like to set up an emergency grant fund where students who need it could get some extra cash for the next couple of months. “We just want to make sure students are in a safe place to finish this semester out," she added.

Going fully online is unprecedented for any Utah college — though others nationwide, including Columbia University and Harvard, are making that transition as well. And other public universities in the state are expected to follow.

Utah universities are working toward similar decisions, but nothing has yet been determined systemwide, said Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the eight public universities here.

“We want to make sure whatever we do is an appropriately measured response," she said Wednesday.

Utah State University in northern Utah will cancel or postpone all events on campus, as well as university-related travel, beginning Thursday and going through April 8, according to an email sent to staff Wednesday afternoon.

Both Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University said they are also planning for the virus to spread and potentially moving classes online. “Things could change in a minute," said SLCC spokesman Joy Tlou.

Southern Utah University has already recalled more than 30 students from study abroad trips in Italy, which has been massively impacted by the virus. And the U. earlier moved classes online at its campus in South Korea.

Westminster College, a private school in Salt Lake City, will continue holding its courses in person, though a spokeswoman there noted that it will add more sanitizing stations on campus and clean buildings more regularly. It, too, has canceled non-essential travel through the end of the semester, including study abroad trips.

Meanwhile, the Utah Board of Education, which oversees public K-12 schools in the state, has also not announced any closures. But it has applied for federal grants this week to continue providing student meals in the case they can no longer attend school during a virus outbreak.