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What will it take to reopen public colleges, universities this fall against backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic?

‘The plan is, we are opening fall semester as planned,’ says interim Utah commissioner of higher education,

FILE - An entrance to the University of Utah campus. Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s higher education chief said Friday the state’s colleges and universities intend to reopen fall semester, and officials are working on guidelines to ensure students, educators and employees can safely work, learn and live on state campuses.

“Our message has got to be from my perspective moving forward, the plan is, we are opening fall semester as planned, right? That’s the message to our students. That’s the message to our parents. Obviously these guidelines are going to help us make those decisions as we get closer, but our intent and purpose right now is to figure out a way to make that happen,” Interim Commissioner David Woolstenhulme told the Utah State Board of Regents on Friday.

Woolstenhulme’s remarks came during a COVID-19 briefing to the board by Leavitt Partners CEO Andrew Crowshaw. Leavitt Partners is one of several entities advising Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together plan. Leavitt Partners is a self-described health care intelligence business.

Crowshaw said the path forward will include guidelines for the system, individual colleges and universities and for students themselves. The latter could include wearing masks, hand-washing protocols and how students use public transportation, make payments and use computer labs.

“We’re trying to work very quickly here as well and so this will be a little messy. We’re working against a moving target because the state will evolve its guidance as we learn more about the disease and most-effective efforts,” he said.

Regent Lisa-Michele Church asked if the guidelines would include specifics on how classrooms should be set up or best practices in student housing or dining.

Crowshaw said recommendations have been developed for businesses and industries under the state’s Utah Leads Together plan and many could apply to college campuses.

A systemwide approach is needed that could be tailored to individual needs of campuses, he said.

“We want to avoid a situation of confusion where at one institution they’ve got 50 people in a classroom and in another institution they’ve said it’s only safe to have 25. All of a sudden we have parents and students saying what ‘Why is it a different safety protocol?’” he said.

One challenge is “where is the boundary between the self-determination of the institution and the guidance for the system?” Crowshaw said.

Church responded: “I think where the individual determination begins and ends is with the public health officials. That seems to be the touchpoint and the hard stop on that.”

Unfortunately, local guidance has not been consistent statewide, she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect the institutions to navigate that.”

Church said her hope is that once campuses develop plans that they will be supported by state and local public health authorities and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

Pandemics “are an unfortunate biological fact of life,” Crowshaw said.

“They happen to occur with enough infrequency that we tend to be underprepared and under-appreciate how extensive the changes (are) that comes from pandemics. I’m talking about economic, sociological and cultural change that happens in populations,” he said.

Although the world has experienced a number of pandemics in recent decades, the global impact of COVID-19 has been much greater.

“COVID-19 is about 10 times more lethal than the influenza,” he said.

The effects of pandemics are felt over multiple years, Crowshaw said.

“Unfortunately we don’t expect this pandemic to be different. It will take us some time before a vaccine that is safe and effective and can be scaled will be available. Rather than thinking of COVID as a problem to be solved and we just move beyond it, we are in an era now where we’re going to be managing this disease for some period to come, hopefully a short period,” he said.

Some indicators guiding the statewide strategy are COVID-19’s rate of spread, hospital utilization and monitoring, he said.

Colleges, which in some respects are like cities, may need specific monitoring and containment efforts to better predict and manage an outbreak, he said.

“For instance, if there was an outbreak on campus, that might be nonmaterial in the state’s numbers but highly material to that particular institution or to that county,” Crowshaw said.

Woolstenhulme said with Leavitt Partners’ help, college presidents and state higher education officials are meeting weekly to develop plans and guidelines.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said the state’s higher education system needs to be mindful of the planning occurring at peer institutions, within athletic conferences and academic spheres.

“We don’t actually exist in the Utah vacuum. We are part of a variety of national groups ... we have a lot of traveling in and out, we play in academic and sporting arenas with other institutions.

“So, as this plan and this roadmap evolves, we have to be cognizant of our intersections and be mapping with other states. ... We’re so interconnected as a nation as universities, that that is going to be important,” Watkins said.

Aside from public health concerns, some students and parents are also struggling with the logistics of returning to school. Off-campus apartment managers are pressing students to enter yearlong leases while students and their parents are concerned that fall semester classes will be offered online.

“It seems like we need to get with these people that provide student housing and put a little pressure on them that they’ve got to be a little bit more flexible in their terms with this COVID and if the school year doesn’t happen, that somehow people can get some refunds,” said Regent Wilford Clyde.

Utah State University President Noelle Cockett said the university has attempted to reach out to landlords. “They pretty much said ‘Not your call.’”

Because USU refunded student dining and housing plans after state institutions shifted to distance learning, the university’s housing “is actually full. That’s ahead of what we would normally have seen,” Cockett said.

It may be more productive to shift the conversation to telling landlords that as on-campus housing fills, there will be more vacant units in the private housing market “and the way you can ensure that you will be competitive in that market is to work more on a favorable lease.”