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MSU-Northern ready for next wave of COVID-19 ahead of summer classes


Last updated 5/11/2021 at 11:25am

Havre Daily News/file photo

Combined classes from the fall of 2019, spring 2020 and 2021 stand during Montana State University-Northern's combined commencement ceremony May 1. The university delayed last year's graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than a year of dealing with the pandemic behind it, Northern is moving into its May and summer schedules.

After more than a year of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana State University-Northern, administration officials said Northern is "a stronger university" as the start of summer classes nears.

"I don't believe (the pandemic has) been much of an issue in 2021, not like it was. At that point we did have more students needed to move into quarantine or whatever the case might be," Dean of College of Technical Sciences Dave Krueger said.

Krueger said the issue of learning gaps or dips in academic progress haven't been brought to his attention yet.

The commissioner of higher education ordered campuses closed last March and Montana's campuses to move to remote learning, but Northern set up remote learning systems that spring and opened classes, with remote opportunities still available, last fall.

"In 2021, we didn't see the students in our college need to miss class. If they were sick or they had to be out, they weren't disadvantaged. They were able to make up those assignments. We use technology to continue recording, where students can watch live from their home or wherever they need to be," he added.

Safety and remaining open top priorities

"(The year) probably paralleled every other business in the state and in the country. I mean, the pandemic was definitely a monkey wrench. As much as we are prepared to be able to handle all different types of adversity, it was something we'd never seen, something at that scale, that magnitude. As ready as we were, we weren't ready, let's just put it that way," Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel said.

"The number one goal, every day that we met was, 'What do we have to do to keep MSU-Northern open?' The last thing that we want to do is close the campus. The last thing that I wanted to do was cancel a course. We needed everybody to be together with what we were putting together as far as safety protocol," he said.

Kegel said the protocols included social distancing and setting up all classrooms and labs in a safe manner, following up and disinfecting to make sure that everybody was wearing masks. He said if there was some type of observation of whether people were feeling well the individuals were checked out.

As of May 6, university data from the Montana Department of Public Health indicates 91 cases of COVID-19 have been associated with MSU-Northern. Krueger, Kegel and Director of University Relations Jim Potter said these figures were not from students acquiring the virus in classes.

"Through contact tracing, we weren't able to pinpoint a case being transmitted from a student in a classroom to another student in that classroom. ... What we've said is that if they got COVID, they got it somewhere other than in the classroom," Kegel said.

Since the May 6 report from the health department, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the last 14 days. Despite the fact Hill County has lifted its mask mandate, Kegel and Potter said university protocols including wearing masks on campus will remain in place this summer.

"We worked very hard to ensure that everyone is as safe as they possibly can be. We're proud of the fact that we have not found any COVID spread that happened as a result of the classroom environment," Potter said.

Part of the safety measures included having no events during this time with the exception of an abbreviated football season with no fans in attendance along with a COVID-safe graduation split into two ceremonies to allow for more social distancing.

Northern's May and full summer sessions begin on May 17 and end on June 4. The next session of summer classes will span from June 7 through July 9. The final summer session will begin July 12 and last through August 13. The fall semester begins Aug. 23, but the university has not announced when residence halls will reopen.

Potter said the university had been adapting to a changing landscape even during summers prior to the pandemic.

"Most of our, not all of them, but a lot of our classes have gone for the summer. I think it's partly COVID, it's partly people need to work. We've watched over the years, as more and more classes have people taking summer classes online, for those reasons, they need to get a summer job. There's not enough summer jobs for every single person on our campus to work in Havre, so they have to go back home and get jobs at home or work on the farm or whatever they need to do," Potter said.

While the university has not mandated students get vaccinated, Northern is strongly encouraging students to get vaccinated. The university will soon be starting a series of programs to present vaccine information. Students who then get vaccinated will receive gift cards.

"We do want to encourage people to get vaccinated, to take some precautions, realizing this probably is not just going away anytime soon. We want to be prepared for whatever the second wave is," Potter said.

"We're going to be doing a video with the chancellor next month on just that whole thing, which is a real challenge to get your shot. We're going to be pushing this summer for students to do that. strong encouragement, nothing forced, nothing required but presenting some facts about why it's a good idea," he added.

Potter said he saw multiple people he works with step up in other areas so everyone could get through the year.

"As a result we're, I think, closer. I think we're a stronger university for it. Would we like to see everything kind of go back to normal? Everybody's wanting to see things become more and more normal and I think they will be," Potter said.

What's next?

Krueger said the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education will look at the transition into next fall's school year during its meeting the end of this month.

"We have not received correspondence from MUS in regard to (how) things need to be the fall. All we've heard is that they want to look at summer as a transition time," he said.


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