New policies and procedures are readied to prevent the spread of the coronavirus

By Frank Jossi

After two months of remote online learning this spring, all four local private colleges and universities have announced plans to bring their students back to campus this fall, but with new policies and protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the institutions have more definitive plans than others, but all of them—Macalester College, the University of St. Thomas, St. Catherine University and Concordia University-St. Paul—are awaiting the release of new guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Preliminary guidelines from the state are expected soon, and final guidelines by the end of June, according to Jason Rahn, the dean of students at Concordia.

Concordia has been discussing how to safely reopen college housing and resume classes, athletics and student food service with two state epidemiologists and representatives of the Minnesota Private College Council.

   
Macalester College students stroll by the campus' Old Main building in a previous school year. Photo by Anne Brandrud

Even without final guidelines from the state, the four institutions are preparing for a very different learning environment. Classrooms have been reconfigured, plexiglass has been installed in frequently visited areas, and new signs are going up to encourage a minimum of six feet of social distancing. Some schools are splitting their semester courses into more intense half-semester courses for greater flexibility. Others are making plans to quarantine students who get sick.

“So much of this is about health etiquette training and washing your hands, staying six feet apart and reminding people to be considerate of others,” Concordia’s Rahn said. “We’re going to rely on more guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control for how we go forward.”

Even without final guidelines from the state, the four institutions are preparing for a very different learning environment. Classrooms have been reconfigured, plexiglass has been installed in frequently visited areas, and new signs are going up to encourage a minimum of six feet of social distancing. Some schools are splitting their semester courses into more intense half-semester courses for greater flexibility. Others are making plans to quarantine students who get sick.

 

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Concordia is well-positioned to manage a learning environment in a pandemic, according to Rahn. Faculty members already teach the same courses for both online and in-person classrooms. Two-thirds of the school’s 1,500 students take at least some courses online, and Concordia already offers courses in both half semesters and full 15-week semesters.

“We deliver classes face to face and online; that has been our history for quite a while,” Rahn said. “It depends on how students best learn and how to meet their goals most efficiently and effectively.” That policy eased the transition to online classes in March, Rahn added, and if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, as some health experts predict, the university will be ready.

Five hundred of Concordia’s students live on campus, some in dorms and others in apartment residence halls, but all buildings have the capacity for students to isolate themselves from others, according to Rahn.

Macalester is planning to have two 15-week terms of on-campus instruction in 2020-21, according to college spokesperson Joe Linstroth. However, this fall students will take two complete courses during the first 71/2 weeks and two complete courses during the second 71/2 weeks, Linstroth said.

Macalester’s residential life department has been trying to “determine the safest, most effective ways to maintain social distancing in a community-living environment,” Linstroth said. Meanwhile, the international exchange programs, long a strength of the college have been put on hold for 2020.

Like other schools, Macalester is awaiting final guidance from state health officials. The college’s “faculty and staff have done a remarkable job stepping up to find the best ways forward that maintain the health and safety of the entire community while also continuing to provide the top-tier education and services for which we’re known,” Linstroth said.

St. Thomas is also committed to reopening its St. Paul campus in the fall, according to its website. The university will be implementing several new health and safety protocols, including new plexiglass barriers in frequently visited areas and multiple hand-washing stations. Student move-in days will be staggered to avoid large congregations. The campus wellness center will provide comprehensive testing for COVID-19, and an isolation area will be available to quarantine students who contract the coronavirus, according to the university’s website.

St. Catherine University may use a hybrid of in-person and online learning this fall, according to its website. Social distancing measures will be in place for all activities. “While face-to-face instruction may be preferred,” the SCU website states, “we want to reassure students that quality education remains at St. Kate’s. We are developing guides and resources to enhance online learning.”

Minnesota colleges have a distinct advantage in having a close relationship with state health officials, according to Rahn. Concordia has campuses around the country, and officials at many of the other Concordia colleges have told him they have not received the same level of guidance from their home states.

“What others are seeing is that the way Minnesota is working with institutions of higher education is incredibly proactive,” Rahn said. “A lot of other colleges feel like they’re islands trying to figure this out on their own. At least we’re coming up with a playbook. For a person in my role, that’s reassuring. And it’s a great thing for Minnesota.”

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