At least two major universities in the state plan to reopen their campuses for in-person classes this fall — and more are likely to follow — though administrators stress that it will happen only with strict measures in place to sanitize and limit spreading the coronavirus among faculty and students.
The University of Utah and Utah State University say they will return, but it will be gradual, at least at first, for the upcoming semester starting in August. Class sizes will be kept small for those coming back. And some courses will remain online for those at higher risk of infection.
“The hard thing for the U. is that we are built to bring people together," school spokesman Chris Nelson said Tuesday. “And so we want to accommodate that as safely as possible.”
The Utah Board of Higher Education is expected to release specific criteria — drafted in coordination with the governor’s office — this week for the colleges choosing to reopen. All eight public institutions in the state, though, can decide individually how each will move forward.
And, of course, it will continue to be contingent on the spread of virus cases in the state, now passing 8,600 total.
Nelson said the U. ultimately chose to try to resume face-to-face classes to “make sure the student experience is as valuable as possible.” Some courses, he added, such as music performance or science labs, are difficult to teach online. And a lot of students have told the school that they want to return to campus after moving all online midway through spring semester.
But the U. faces at least one challenge that other colleges in the state don’t: It’s located in Salt Lake City, which is still in the “orange” or moderate risk phase for the virus and has stricter social distancing requirements. Every other institution is in a “yellow” or low-risk area.
To abide by that, the U. plans to limit class sizes and space desks out about 6 feet apart. The school will also be consolidating which buildings it uses, so those can be cleaned quickly and regularly. “It’s probably not going to be your typical experience this year,” Nelson noted.
Additionally, the U. will be installing sanitizing stations across campus. And it’s considering whether to require everyone to wear a mask.
Nelson said there are 500 classes currently scheduled for the fall. Some of those will remain online. And some will be done through a hybrid of digital and in-person learning. For instance, half a class may meet in the room and the other half may join via videoconference.
Students will be allowed to move into the dorms, as well, which are already booked for the semester. But there will also be more cleanings. And the dining halls won’t be providing food in a buffet style, as normal. Instead, most of it will be prepackaged; tables will also be distanced for those eating there.
Utah State, which is largely a residential school in Logan, will be doing much of the same. Even though that part of the state hasn’t seen as many cases of the virus, USU President Noelle Cockett said in a statement Tuesday that students and staff will need to take precautions so that the university can open and remain open.
“We are counting on our faculty, staff and students to be socially responsible with the protocols we will put in place so everyone benefits from a successful fall semester,” she said. “Our plans for fall semester will only continue if we all move forward with care and concern for our fellow community members.”
The board overseeing higher education in Utah spoke about the options earlier this month. Andrew Croshaw, a consultant from Leavitt Partners, spoke to the group, and urged each college to have procedures in place to monitor for outbreaks and to be able to contain them. He also said all schools should have a plan to shut down, if necessary.
“It’s really about protecting faculty and staff,” he added.
That may require testing groups of students, such as the football team, for the virus. Or it could mean checking temperatures in certain buildings. Campuses, he noted, won’t be able to stay open if precautions aren’t taken.
The commissioner for higher education, Dave Woolstenhulme, said the plans have been drafted in conjunction with the state and will be dependent on any changes ordered by Gov. Gary Herbert. But he believes Utah is “in a good spot” for colleges to reopen.
Returning to campus has a lot to do, too, with the economy, Woolstenhulme acknowledged.
Without colleges reopening, some of the smaller towns, such as Logan or Cedar City, home to Southern Utah University, may be dramatically impacted when there are no students to support businesses. And losing sports, for instance, could mean far less revenue for schools. At the U., not having a football season would likely mean a $57 million loss, President Ruth Watkins confirmed during the higher education meeting.
Additionally, many schools may see their enrollment drop if in-person classes aren’t offered. Students may choose to go to a cheaper school in the fall rather than pay high tuition for online coursework.
“We’re actually quite concerned about that,” said Brad Cook, president of Snow College in Ephraim.
Cockett at USU said that enrollment for fall at her institution is anticipated to be down by 4.1%. In response, the school has extended deadlines to give students more time to consider their options.
Meanwhile, other schools in the state are holding off on deciding whether to return just yet. Utah Valley University in Orem anticipates a decision will be made by Friday. Some staffers have gone back to work there in phases, and the aviation and police training programs are being done in-person this summer.
It’s expected, though, that UVU will reopen, along with Salt Lake Community College. And Westminster College, a private school in Salt Lake City, will hold classes in-person on a modified schedule.
But while major universities across the nation — including Northwestern University in Illinois and Duke University in North Carolina — have announced they will resume, some Utah schools are still hesitant with three months to go before the semester starts.
Brigham Young University, a private school in Provo, doesn’t anticipate having a decision until at least July. In St. George, Dixie State University President Richard Williams added that he’s not sure what to do yet, either.
“Our plans are not going to prevent incidence of the virus," he said. "We’re not going to have campuses that are virus-free. That’s just not possible.”