North Dakota campuses prepare for spring semester with new knowledge
As the next semester approaches, SBHE member Nick Hacker said the system needs to maintain and continue its “strong mitigation efforts” at all of the campuses.
As North Dakota’s colleges and universities anxiously await the coronavirus vaccine, higher education leaders across the state are preparing to go into the spring semester with a wealth of knowledge and learning from the past nine months.
“We need to maintain playing defense, but we're getting ready to go on offense with the vaccine,” said Nick Hacker, chair of the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s 11 public institutions.
The state board made the decision in late April to bring students back to campuses for some form of in-person learning this fall. In mid-March, students left campuses with many unknowns.
Leaders across the system spent time planning for a return to campus and how they would deal with outbreaks, as well as how they would deliver their courses.
Nearly all of the campuses were able to keep with their hybrid learning models throughout the semester, the only exception being Mayville State , which was forced to pivot to online learning for two weeks in early November after a surge in cases.
As the next semester approaches, Hacker said the system needs to maintain and continue its “strong mitigation efforts” at all state campuses. Thus far those mitigation efforts have been successful as the campuses have been able to knock down infection rates when cases have risen, Hacker said.
As of Dec. 14, the university system had 3,450 positive student test results. There were no student hospitalizations and zero student deaths, according to a presentation from Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of the UND medical school and the person tasked with heading the system’s coronavirus response.
The virus cases came in waves for the system, reaching an initial high with nearly 500 active cases across the institutions in early September, most of which were at UND. But those numbers trickled down in a few weeks' time, eventually dropping to fewer than 200 in early October.
However, cases started to climb again in the middle of the month into November shortly after cases in North Dakota rose. Just as students were getting ready to head out for Thanksgiving break, the system was seeing its highest active case loads with just over 600 cases across the 11 institutions. Those numbers eventually dropped as well.
Late October and most of November proved to be one of the most difficult time periods of the pandemic in North Dakota and across the North Dakota University System.
The highs and lows of cases nearly mirrored each other throughout the semester, but whether there is a definitive link between cases on the campuses and within the state as a whole is difficult to prove. NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott said he believes the data shows the majority of the virus spread wasn’t in classrooms across the state, but within the community.
“I think that’s what we've learned, that going to school is probably one of the safest things you can do,” he said.
Hacker said the board and the system has learned that students do desire some form of an on-campus experience, even if that doesn’t mean an in-person classroom experience.
“We've learned how to deliver more effectively, online or hybrid models, and we learned that they desire this in-person campus experience,” he said.
Similar scenarios played out across the United States, as The New York Times reported earlier this month. The Times reported that since the end of August, coronavirus deaths have doubled in counties with a large college population. That’s compared to a 58% increase in the rest of the country.
At UND, cases were particularly high early in the semester when students returned to campus in late August.
The Times report highlighted Grand Forks County, noting that college students make up about 17% of the county’s population and that after a surge in cases among younger populations, there were outbreaks at local nursing homes.
The spike of cases in college students could have been the primary reason for the rise in cases generally in the county, Michael Dulitz, who does data analysis for Grand Forks Public Health, told The Times.
“There was not any other explanation,” he said.
But university leaders have maintained throughout the semester that the mitigation efforts worked. After peaking at 330 cases in late August, UND cases fell into the mid 30s by mid-September. The campus saw another rise in cases in mid to late-October but those numbers also went down.
UND President Andrew Armacost said planning efforts paid off. The campus has maintained a pandemic response team since March; that group meets regularly and will continue to do so moving forward.
“We have to keep planning, and we have to keep anticipating the uncertainties and the unknowns about how the pandemic might play out,” he said.
There were a lot of takeaways from the semester that university leaders can take with them into the new year, Armacost said. Communication with campus and the general public was important.
The ability for university leaders to advocate to state leaders for the campus and for the needs of the Grand Forks community helped keep campus open, Armacost said. The university was able to secure its own contact tracing team and bring in more consistent testing throughout the semester. That, paired with UND’s isolation and quarantine processes, meant classes could continue without disruption.
“Our advocacy, I think, was a huge plus, a huge bonus,” Armacost said. “In addition, I think we've been a good advocate for the rest of the system as well. We have been, I think, at the front of a lot of initiatives in terms of pushing for resources from the state.”
Armacost said he wants to continue to be an advocate for the university at a local and state level.
“I will continue to be aggressive, and perhaps even more aggressive, in terms of what we have found on campus to be effective measures,” he said.
Earlier this month , Wynne said the system and UND are headed in the “right direction” for now because people have been wearing masks, social distancing and taking other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. But there is still some concern about what numbers could look like next semester, when students return from holiday break.
Moving forward, Wynne said efforts to continue testing more students will be important for virus mitigation in the spring, including rapid testing.
The system is working on getting more of the antigen, or rapid, tests for the campuses, Wynne said. UND was one of four higher education institutions in the state that were allotted a set of the rapid tests. North Dakota State, Dakota College at Bottineau and Minot State also received the tests.