UST readies for safe return to campus, urges students to make smart choices

By Jane McClure

The COVID-19 pandemic will bring numerous changes to the University of Saint Thomas this fall. Mandatory masks and social distancing, along with a combination of in-person and online classes, are key parts of the university’s plan when classes resume on September 9.

Saint Paul neighbors and members of the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee (WSNAC) discussed the university’s campus preparedness plan on July 14. While committee members and neighbors were glad to hear about plans for 10,000 purple masks, stepped-up cleaning measures and 636 hand-sanitizing stations, a big concern was off-campus student behavior. Parties and a lack of social distancing this summer have raised red flags for neighbors. The pandemic has also heightened fears about the health implications of students trying to save money by crowding into rental houses and apartments.

University officials have started calling landlords to emphasize the need for social distancing and safe behavior, said UST neighborhood liaison Amy Gage. She also urged neighbors to contact university officials if they see violations. Students who do not comply will run afoul of Saint Thomas’ code of conduct, she said, and all students will sign pledges to follow pandemic-related rules.

The university has a phased-in plan for reopening buildings, and a faculty and staff plan for the return to campus this fall. There will be plexiglass barriers at reception desks and check-in points, and reduced capacity in classrooms. Buildings will be outfitted with hand-sanitizing stations. Each classroom will have disinfectant and paper towels so students can clean their workspaces before and after class. 

Traffic patterns will be established inside and outside. One issue to be addressed is that of class changes and maintaining social distance in stairwells.

Floors and sidewalks will be marked for social distancing, and there will be to-go items in dining facilities and more distance between tables and chairs. School officials are emphasizing the message: “Do your part, stay apart.”

 

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If students become ill during the fall semester, they will be sent home or quarantined if they cannot do so. A process is in place for reimbursing tuition if a student cannot return to class.

UST director of facilities services Nichole Boehmke wears a mask above the Anderson Student Center atrium, where seating has been spaced out preparing for the fall semester. Photos by Brad Stauffer
More than 700 disinfectant stations for wiping down public spaces have been installed on UST’s two campuses in preparation for the start of school. This one is in the Anderson Student Center in Saint Paul.

Madonna McDermott, who leads UST’s Center for Well-Being, outlined the many measures taken since the pandemic began. More mental health, tele-health and drive-up services are being offered. Health care staff are preparing for anticipated surges in COVID-19 cases. McDermott said health care staff members are working on contact tracing if there is an outbreak of the virus.

WSNAC member and Merriam Park resident Josh Capistrant said students need to take health issues seriously. “The social distancing has been awful this summer,” he said, and that has been with fewer students in the surrounding neighborhoods than normal.

“There are going to be some kids who are really angry about this,” predicted Alyssa Rebensdorf, a WSNAC member and campus neighbor.

Josh Hengemuhle, assistant dean of students, and other university officials said the message to students this fall is that everyone needs to make good choices. “This is what we need to do to have school this fall,” he said.

COVID-19 first came on the university’s radar in January, as international students returned from China after the holiday break. Not long after that, Saint Thomas’ campus in Rome was shut down.

The first COVID-19 cases on the Saint Paul campus showed up in March. Saint Thomas closed down during the spring semester and moved learning online. Most students living on-campus went home, but more than 100 students remained in the dorms because they could not easily go home. About 80 students are on campus this summer.

Josh Hengemuhle, assistant dean of students, and other university officials said the message to students this fall is that everyone needs to make good choices. “This is what we need to do to have school this fall,” he said.

The number of Saint Thomas students living on campus is expected to be down slightly this fall. As of now, many buildings remain locked with restricted access. Some research labs reopened this summer, and athletic and recreational facilities have also reopened.

Athletic department officials were still waiting as of mid-July for word from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference on plans for fall sports (it has since moved most fall sports to the spring, with the exception of conference matches for golf and tennis). Carleton College already had announced that it had canceled all of its fall sports.

The campus preparedness plan will be modified as needed, said Karen Lange, vice president for student affairs. University officials are working with the Minnesota Department of Health, which is advising colleges and universities throughout the state on their pandemic responses.

Saint Kate’s also preparing for start of fall classes

Saint Catherine University announced its back-to-school plans in July and is expected to roll out more details over the next few weeks. The university will offer courses in three formats: in-person, online and a combination of the two.

“While we desire to have students experience face-to-face instruction, face-to-face courses have been prioritized based on the need to have access to specialized equipment or lab spaces that require physical attendance in class,” said Anita Thomas, SCU provost and executive vice president.

Class times are being adjusted to allow for safe social distancing and cleaning between in-person classes, as well as longer breaks between online sessions to allow students to transition from one topic to the next.

According to its website, the university tried some in-person classes this summer using policies and procedures aimed at providing a safe return to campus. Those include mandatory face coverings for everyone entering buildings and common spaces.

All faculty, staff and students must review the COVID-19 Health Best Practices and complete a “Safe Return to Campus Quiz” before their first trip to school. They also must complete a daily symptoms self-check each day. Anyone not cleared to come to campus must contact school officials.

The SCU facilities team is following a detailed cleaning and sanitizing process based on state and federal health guidelines. Additional details will be provided for spaces with specific equipment that will need to be cleaned. Additionally, the university’s ventilation systems have been reviewed to make sure they are operating efficiently and allow for as much air circulation as possible.

On-campus housing and dining plans are being finalized, with the goal of providing safe social distancing. Plans are also being made for quarantining students as needed. Space needs mean that housing may not be immediately offered to everyone interested in living on campus.

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