U of M regents agree to delay in-person classes on Twin Cities, Rochester, Duluth campuses

An informational flyer is tacked to a red and yellow pole.
A flyer with information about mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is tacked to a pole at the University of Minnesota campus in March. Undergraduate students in the U's Twin Cities and two other campuses will have to wait at least two weeks to walk back into the classroom and move into their dorm rooms, the Board of Regents decided Monday.
Chris Juhn for MPR News file

University of Minnesota undergraduate students in the Twin Cities and two other campuses will have to wait at least two weeks to walk back into the classroom and move into their dorm rooms, the Board of Regents decided Monday.

The changes come after large schools across the country have been dealing with spread of the coronavirus among students: At the University of Tennessee, there are now more than 130 active COVID-19 cases, with nearly 450 students in isolation. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all undergraduate classes were moved online after 130 students tested positive.

A brown-haired woman speaks at a podium.
U of M President Joan Gabel delivers her inaugural address in September 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2019

“All of our peers had fall plans,” said U of M President Joan Gabel.

“There was no one in the entire country who took this situation lightly. Everyone has been working nonstop with advice to develop what they’ve done in order to maximize the likelihood of a safe and successful return to campus. And despite all of that work, we’ve seen troubling results.”

Gabel hopes that pushing back move-in dates and in-person classes will allow the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses some time to reassess and to see what is working elsewhere.

“This window helps us avoid moving large numbers of students into on campus housing and then locking them down or asking them to move right back out again if the public health conditions eventually require,” she said. “And we have reason to believe they might, given what’s happened on other campuses.”

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At Morris and Crookston, classes will begin as scheduled — Gabel explained there are fewer COVID-19 cases in those areas.

Parents and students affected by the delay sent emails, signed petitions and made calls to the regents. Some voiced concern that  there will be ongoing delays, instead of a final decision about coming back or going all online.

“This is about as gray of an area as I’ve ever seen in my 12 years on the board,” said regent Richard Beeson. “I don’t think two additional weeks is really going to provide us with any conclusive evidence on which to make a better decision. There’s going to be data but it will be light and it’s going to be early, and there will be a lot of headlines and anecdotal evidence over the 5,000 colleges and universities. And it’s going to continue to feel confusing, maybe more so.”

Beeson said that many students who are not living on campus will still be moving in, and the U can’t control decisions parents and students are making.

“When we talk about risk and we talk about our obligation, we have to be talking about it in terms of risk not only to the university community, but the community at large — parents, grandparents, faculty, all the individuals, employees, that an infected individual could come into contact with,” said regent Janie Mayeron, who supported the delay.

Gabel said administrators are especially thinking about new U students and “ache for their lost experiences.”

The university’s graduate schools are making in-person class decisions individually.

At the University of Minnesota Duluth, move-in had been scheduled to start this week, with classes starting next Monday. UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said about 40 percent of classes were scheduled to be taught at least partly in-person.

"Obviously the face to face aspects of those courses are going to have to be reconsidered as we go forward at least for the first couple weeks of the semester, and maybe longer depending on what the faculty decide and how things play out,” he said.