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Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Posted at 11:52 AM, Aug 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-25 13:53:38-04

This article was written by Kevin Richert with Idaho Education News.

Things were quiet on the state’s largest university campus Monday, as face-to-face learning resumed for the first time in five months.

But it was quiet “in the best possible way,” Boise State University President Marlene Tromp said.

“Our goal was not to have the crazy crowds,” Tromp said in a Monday interview. “Our goal was to avoid it.”

Boise State University is tracking seven active coronavirus cases as classes opened Monday. The university hopes to ramp up testing in September, and unlike other institutions, Boise State abandoned the idea of testing all students before the start of the semester. We couldn’t require it because people couldn’t get (tests),”

The long-term goal is to stay open. Classes opened Monday at seven of the state’s public colleges and universities, beginning an uncertain academic year.

What unfolds between now and May hinges on whether the schools’ health and safety guidelines are sufficient to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Like the state’s other public colleges and universities — such as Idaho State University, which opened for classes a week agoBoise State and U of I have a long list of coronavirus safeguards in place. Students and staff are required to wear face masks. Face-to-face classes will be held in larger lecture rooms, or student union building meeting rooms, to maintain social distancing. Dorms will operate at reduced capacity, so fewer students are sharing limited living space.

But the fate of the academic year also rests in the hands of the students — such as the 25,000-plus students expected at Boise State, and the 12,000 or so students expected at the U of I and Idaho State. Will they follow the guidelines, the wellness pledges and the mask requirements?

Emily White is encouraged by what she has seen in her first couple of days back on the Boise State campus. A junior marketing major and a member of the Associated Students of Boise State University’s executive council, White says she is seeing her classmates connect over a session of Frisbee, or other activities that keep them six feet apart. “People are definitely getting creative with how they’re social distancing.”

On Sunday night, U of I President C. Scott Green welcomed new students to the Moscow campus for the annual campus barbecue. All the students who attended wore masks, complying with campus policy and a county ordinance.

But on Friday, Green issued a stern memo to the student body, after receiving word of crowded parties both on and off the campus.

“Your behavior diminishes the hard work conducted all summer to prepare for your arrival,” Green wrote. “Frankly, if you are not willing to support our university and those who want an in-person learning environment, you should not be here, and we will take the necessary steps to remove you from our community.”

While he was “disappointed” by several recent on- and off-campus parties that could lead to a spread of coronavirus, University of Idaho President C. Scott Green said students are generally taking the health crisis seriously. Mask usage is nearly universal, as students adjust to a new campus reality during a pandemic. “They also know that online feels like, and they don’t want that,” he said Monday.

In an interview Monday, Green said the university can discipline students who violate health requirements. And Moscow police — which were called to off-campus parties last week — can fine students who hold large parties or refuse to wear masks, in violation of local health district orders.

Joe Garrett said the memo showed Green means business, and set the right tone about keeping the campus open. But Garrett, a junior serving as vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Idaho, said the memo also took some of his classmates aback, especially since it addressed off-campus activities.

“I think it’s woken up a lot of students,” Garrett said. “But at the same time, we’re college students and we want to have a good time.”

One of Tromp’s biggest concerns is what happens when students go off-campus. Colleges and universities can draw up solid health and safety plans, but they don’t extend beyond the campus. She doesn’t want to let students off the hook. But at the same time, she realizes that college-aged students are risk-takers — and neurologically, their brains are under development until their mid-20s.

“I don’t think of it as a moral failing on the part of our students,” she said.

Other institutions — such as the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — went to online learning in the past few days, after dozens of positive coronavirus test results. As Boise State and U of I open, their numbers are more manageable.

By comparison, Boise State was tracking seven coronavirus cases as of Friday. The university has 100 residential hall rooms set aside for quarantining or isolation, and all remain vacant. Meanwhile, the U of I has tested 5,231 students; 59 tests have come back positive. Six of these students are in quarantine rooms on campus, while the rest are self-isolating off campus. The numbers are low enough that the university’s team of 15 contact tracers haven’t had anything to do, Green said. The local health district is handling the tracing work.

But the next few weeks will be critical.

Green wants the U of I to keep a close eye out for “super-spreader” events, such as large parties. He wants the university to stay its course, offering a face-to-face component in 70 percent of its classes. At a residential university, with thousands of students living on campus, shifting to online instruction only does so much to halt the virus. “That’s a false solution,” he said.

Tromp is preaching flexibility. Boise State is offering half of its classes online now, and might need to move more classes onto a virtual platform during an outbreak — as Notre Dame is doing now. That wouldn’t be a failure, she said. It still represents an improvement from March, when the state’s entire higher education system closed its campuses and abruptly moved all classes online.

White remembers that transition all too well. She moved out of her dorm and finished spring semester at her home in New Plymouth. She was “shocked” at how quickly her professors made the transition to online instruction, but she was still disappointed to have to leave campus. She’s glad to be back, but she’s not completely sure what to expect.

“I think that’s definitely a worry that everyone has,” she said Monday morning. “I think everyone here is putting forth their best effort.”

As Garrett returns to the U of I for his junior year, to pursue a double major in political science and business management, the Mountain Home native comes to campus with a feeling of uncertainty. He also remembers the sudden shock of leaving campus five months ago.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We could go home tomorrow, and that could just be it.”