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Montana universities look at starting fall semester sooner amid pandemic
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Montana universities look at starting fall semester sooner amid pandemic

Montana’s public universities are working on plans to start the 2020 fall semester earlier with the intention of having students on campus.

An update from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education sent out to institutions affiliated with the Montana University System Thursday encouraged campuses to design a fall academic calendar that ensures course completion by Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The update comes at a time when students have finished their spring semester courses after having to shift to online learning March 23 to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Finishing fall semester before Thanksgiving will prevent the risk of students and employees from spreading COVID-19 on campus after returning from vacation and possible out-of-state travel.

A calendar adjustment that shifts the fall term earlier into August ensures that courses are completed before late fall, “when projections suggest greater prevalence of general illness and perhaps an increased threat from COVID-19,” according to the update.

The suggestions made by Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force are not mandated, but campus administration is expected to establish adjustments and strategies that adhere to campus needs.

“This is really a fast-changing, dynamic situation, so we aren’t making any recommendations or decisions on spring semester (2021) at this point,” said Karen Odgen, communications director for the Office of Higher Education. “Moving fall semester back doesn’t impact spring semester.”

With the recommendations, Montana State University in Bozeman announced Friday that it will begin its fall semester two weeks early.

Fall semester will begin Aug. 17 and end Nov. 25, according to a press release from the MSU News Service. Key dates for the 2020-2021 academic year, including a tentative date for fall commencement, are as follows:

  • Monday, Aug. 17 – first day of classes for fall semester.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 25 – last day of fall classes.
  • Sunday Nov. 22 – fall commencement ceremony
  • Monday, Jan. 11, 2021 – first day of the spring semester.

“Our students have told us that finding a safe way to provide on-campus, in-person education is their preference,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado in the release. “These changes protect the safety and health of our students, faculty and staff while providing that quality educational experience.”

MSU will also implement education and hygiene measures, screenings and a plan to quarantine students who are living on-campus.

Strategies could include moving desks to accommodate social distancing guidelines, changing traffic routes in buildings to limit congestion in hallways, and encouraging students to wear face masks, according to Michael Becker, director of the MSU News Service.

“We understand that this fall will be unlike any other fall in the history of the university," Becker said.

While Montana State University Billings hasn’t completed its fall academic calendar, it has already formed plans to implement when students return to class.

MSU Billings Provost Melinda Arnold is a member of the MUS Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, formed in April to guide MUS campuses through the pandemic, according to Maureen Brakke, director for MSU Billings marketing and communications.

University faculty and staff also created the Back to Business Task Force, which will follow guidance from a plan distributed later this summer by the MUS Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force.

MSU Billings’ task force is working to make university-branded signs and floor stickers that encourage social distancing and hand washing. Plexiglass shields and a cleaning schedule will also be implemented in high-traffic areas, Brakke said.

University of Montana administration, faculty and staff will also be working over the next few days to design a fall calendar that follows Christian’s guidelines, according to a Friday press release by UM President Seth Bodnar.

The university also formed a mission-based team working on ways to prevent the spread of the virus and adapt instruction to student needs, according to a press release by Bodnar on May 7.

The group is working on ways to support teaching and learning; establish mitigation, testing, tracing and isolation and quarantine plans; develop different ways to carry out classes, like separating the academic term into seven- or eight-week blocks year-round; and more.

“Rest assured the group is wide ranging, broad of scope and narrow in focus," Bodnar said in the release. "They will work to protect the health and safety of our campus community while still ensuring we are able to provide a tomorrow-proof education for our students."

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