When students return to UND’s campus next month, it won’t be a typical college experience.

Most of the time spent indoors will involve wearing face coverings and social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. There will be more hand sanitizer stations and limitations on how many people can be at events. Some classes will be held in-person and online at the same time.

“I think that the philosophy is that (the university is) trying to make it as normal a year as possible, but with allowances for safety,” said Tom Dennis, who is a part of UND’s communications department.

As the university prepares for next month’s return of students, coronavirus and issues related to the pandemic are chief concerns among UND leaders, several of whom participated this week in an hour-long discussion with the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board.

Debbie Storrs, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs, said faculty have been “tremendously busy” preparing for their fall classes, whether those classes will be in-person, online or a hybrid of both.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“It's pretty significant in terms of how much goes on in an academic year,” Storrs said.

But planning for the upcoming semester goes beyond the curriculum and now includes just how the classes will function in the fall: How many students will be in each class? Where will they sit? How many will be online?

The plans are being put together by faculty, staff, department chairs and deans to determine the best fit for each classroom situation, which may mean something different for science lab versus an English lecture.

“It's opening up the whole campus thoughtfully,” Storrs said.

The university has created guidelines for students, staff and faculty, mandating the use of face coverings. Masks likely will be worn throughout the school year.

Masks will be required when someone is indoors or interacting with another person. Masks will not be required while outdoors, if a 6-foot distance can be maintained.

“If physical distancing can’t be maintained and they are in close proximity, they will be required to wear a face covering,” UND President Andrew Armacost said. “And then if one is off campus and representing the university, that will be a case where we will require them to wear face coverings as well.”

Armacost said the university is “expecting and strongly encouraging” its students, faculty and staff to abide by the guidelines “wherever they are.”

Testing

The university has determined various risk groups of students who may pose a higher likelihood of contracting COVID-19 due to the often close nature of their activities or fields of study. Those risk groups – including athletes, aviation students, students participating in the performing arts and those in health-related fields – will be tested at a higher rate if university-wide testing occurs this fall.

Testing will be an important factor this fall, Armacost said. He hopes UND will be able to “test all people on campus when they return and then do periodic testing throughout the fall semester.” The North Dakota University System is seeking to do statewide testing of students before they return in the fall. Details on that plan are still in the works.

The university is in the process of obtaining testing equipment that can give results in about four hours for supplemental testing. The machine – its trade name is Hologic Panther – costs about $135,000, said Jed Shivers, vice president of finance and operations at UND. The machine can run about 1,150 tests in 24 hours.

However, Shivers noted that getting the supplies to do the testing may be tricky, especially as other states are seeing a surge in positive cases. Additionally the testing would be expensive. Between labor and consumables, the cost would be about $132 per test.

“We see it as a long-term investment for student health, as well as to meet the immediate needs of COVID,” Shivers said.

The machine will be paid for as a university operating expense. Shivers said the machine could be used to do other testing beyond COVID-19 and could be used in the future for the campus.

The university recently hosted an event at which 1,000 tests were conducted by the North Dakota National Guard and other public health officials. Of the 1,000 tests, four returned positive.

Enrollment

Storrs hopes to see more students registering for classes in the fall. She said early data shows that many on-campus students are also registering for online classes. Many of those online classes are filling up rather quickly.

Overall, enrollment has been a “mixed bag,” Armacost said.

“We'll wait and see,” he said. “We won't know for sure until people start stepping foot on campus. I think there might be families making decisions over the summer as well.”

Storrs said UND data is following a national trend with first-year student numbers down compared to this time last year. Students may be waiting to make a decision, potentially due to financial constraints or as families wait for more clarity for the upcoming semester.

The numbers don’t come as a big surprise to UND leaders.

“We’ve planned for this,” Storrs said. “We're doing a lot of outreach to communicate to students what they can expect for this fall. I think as soon as they get more clarity, they'll be able to make some decisions about coming in the fall.”

Concerns

During the Tuesday meeting, the Herald asked the UND leaders about their immediate concerns as the school year looms.

Their responses:

During the Tuesday meeting, the Herald asked the UND leaders about their immediate concerns as the school year looms.

Armacost: Looking ahead, Armacost said in addition to the near-term concerns with the virus, the university also has to consider long-term ramifications with the budget.

Enrollment numbers will have a big impact on how UND fares in the upcoming biennium, especially as state revenue may be in a volatile spot come spring.

“What guarantees can we get from the Legislature for long-term stability for funding of higher ed, and funding at UND?” Armacost asked. “The long-term budget is a really important point.”

Armacost said the university also has to keep its “eyes on the long-term strategy for UND” and what higher education looks like in the next 10 to 30 years at UND.

Storrs: Storrs said here is still much planning and preparing to do for academic affairs this fall, even beyond the classroom. What would be the best protocol for the Pride of the North marching band to practice? How do theater productions and music events go on safely?

“There are all of these other components that round out the academic experience,” she said. “That is where my angst is -- making sure we have thoughtful plans and that our public health officials on campus and our pandemic team are reviewing them to make sure they are following the safest guidelines possible. It’s an enormous amount of work and the deans, chairs and faculty are all pulling together to do that work.”

Meloney Linder, vice president of marketing and communications: Linder said her team is working closely with facilities to ensure there is signage and messaging on campus to educate people on behaviors expected on campus during the pandemic.

“In addition to that, there is a lot going on at UND beyond just COVID and making sure we are getting the word out about the great activities that are happening,” she said. “That doesn’t stop just because of COVID.”

Shivers: Shivers said “the most important thing starts with the fact that the university is going to be open.”

He said the university has been “doing the best kind of planning we know how to do” to have more than 13,000 students, faculty and staff on campus next month.

“We’re doing our best to try to figure out how to make it happen in the safest way possible and to thread the needle between helping people understand what they can do in order to have respect for others and at the same time really enjoy what a college experience is all about -- meeting new people, mixing with new people and coming back to find those friends you have not been able to see for the last three months or so,” he said.

Shivers said faculty and staff want to work in “a good and safe environment” while also seeing “all the lively and enjoyable aspects of college life, too.”

“Hopefully, we are getting the mix right. And so far, generally speaking, I feel like we are,” he said