As UND preps for returning students, administrators monitor pandemic situation
The takeaway from a pair of town hall events on Tuesday, Aug. 17, is that the situation around the pandemic, and its latest and more transmissible Delta variant, is “fluid,” and that policies can change. The meetings were meant as informational sessions where several UND administrators worked to answer questions people have about coming back to campus.
While most policies are in place for UND students set to return to campus in the upcoming days, administrators there are keeping a watchful eye on the evolving coronavirus pandemic, and if necessary, will make changes to how campus life will function.
The takeaway from a pair of town hall events on Tuesday, Aug. 17, is that the situation around the pandemic, and its latest and more transmissible Delta variant, is “fluid,” and that policies can change. One meeting was held in the morning for faculty and staff and the other in the evening for students. The meetings were meant as informational sessions where several UND administrators worked to answer questions people have about coming back to campus.
Generally, the tone of the meetings were positive, and administrators stated their hopes of a normal looking fall semester, with on-campus entertainment and a return to regular athletic events. Topics ranged from where people can park while moving into student housing, to whether vaccinations against COVID-19 will be required, to the conditions that would need to arise for a return to online-only instruction.
About the latter, Provost Eric Link said the staff is monitoring the situation and adhering to Centers for Disease Control guidelines, but it’s difficult to say what could trigger shifting to online-only classes.
“Clearly, the situation that entered a fluid state a year ago continues to be somewhat fluid,” said Link, now seven weeks into his position as provost. “It's impossible to say exactly what one particular metric we might have to hit, in order for us to make such a decision.”
The following includes portions of what was discussed at the meetings:
A vaccination site will be available for students at Wilkerson Hall during Welcome Weekend, which begins on Aug. 21. Students, staff and faculty can also make appointments for shots at UND’s Student Health facilities, and Jessica Doty, director of student health, also pointed out they are widely available in Grand Forks. UND is urging students to get at least the first shot in their hometowns before returning to campus.
But urging students to get the jab is where the university’s influence ends. In response to a question about why there is no vaccine mandate, UND President Andrew Armacost said the state Legislature would need to take action for that to happen. Coronavirus vaccines do not yet have full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they haven’t been added to the list of vaccines the school requires.
“We do not have the legal authority within the state of North Dakota to mandate vaccines,” Armacost said. “It's that simple.”
While UND administrators are strongly encouraging people to get vaccinated -- Armacost and others plugged their efficacy throughout the meeting -- they won’t ask people about their vaccination status. Peggy Varberg, associate vice president of human resources, said the decision was made to avoid the appearance of “bullying” people to either get the shot, or reveal their status.
Testing for coronavirus will remain widely available, as will contact tracing services.
While masks are not required to be worn, they are strongly recommended at UND. Each faculty member, and people in supervisory positions can set the determination for masks in a classroom or work space. Given present rates of virus transmission Armacost said he chose not to have an across-the-boards mandate, but he didn’t rule out the possibility of putting one in place.
Cara Halgren, vice president of student affairs, said it’s necessary to clearly state, verbally, through signage and on course syllabi, whether masks will be required. Professors, Halgren said, can call UND police if they encounter a person who refuses the requirement, but added that she had not heard of one such incident on campus in the previous school year. Clear communication, Halgren said, is necessary to avoid misunderstandings about mask wearing.
What if students get sick?
People who have not had the vaccine and are identified as a close contact, or people who have tested positive will not be allowed on campus, until their isolation or quarantine period has passed. UND will make available housing at local hotels for this purpose, at no cost to students. Those rooms will also be available to students living off campus, should they have roommates and need to isolate.
Students are encouraged to self-report through UND’s COVID-19 updates page on the website, where they can find additional health-related information.
When it comes to school work, administrators were clear that faculty and students can work together, along with student advisors, about staying up to date, should they need to go through an isolation period.
Generally, classes listed as in person will be held in person, and students are expected to attend those classes. Options may be available, however, for students who wish to try a hybrid or remote format. Students need to reach out to their advisors and faculty for those discussions.
The Memorial Union will open on Aug. 23, the first day of classes. Events including movies, trivia and others will be regularly held -- a profoundly more normal look than what was seen in 2020. An average of three events will be held each week, and include the long-postponed Spring Fever concert at the Alerus Center. Attendance will also be fully opened for UND sporting events.