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As Montana State University welcomes students to campus this week, locals are worried that students’ arrival might lead to additional coronavirus cases in Gallatin County.

When asked how the school is addressing those concerns, President Waded Cruzado said every college town nationwide is experiencing similar issues and she understands those worries.

“So far, our students have been incredible leaders in this effort and we will continue to do our part,” Cruzado said. “We hope our community will also join us in making sure that we do not stigmatize students as seeing them as the source of infection but rather encouraging personal responsibility.”

The questions about safety for the fall semester arose five days before classes are scheduled to begin.

MSU has established protocols like requiring face masks in buildings, reducing the size of certain events and moving some classes partially or entirely online. Instead of move-in day, MSU is holding move-in week to space people out to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The school is expecting positive cases on campus and the rules in place are designed to limit larger outbreaks.

“We want to be realistic about it,” Cruzado said, “but we want to believe that we know how to handle it.”

At Wednesday’s University Council meeting, former Bozeman mayor Bob Hawks asked the university to present to the public the work it’s doing to address COVID-19.

“We need somehow to have a policy statement that is suggesting that there is more than just a handout to students,” Hawks said. “That they are being guided through this process, so we can all walk out the other side of this with a good relationship.”

Dean of Students Matt Caires suggested MSU could publish a summary of its 60-page reopening plan. He also said his office has created a webpage where Bozeman residents can submit concerns, which his office will work with students and the administration to address.

Cruzado cautioned that students should be treated like other Bozeman residents and encouraged to follow safety measures such as washing their hands and practicing social distancing.

“On the one hand, our students are the bloodline of our economy in this town,” she said. “On the other, people are concerned what will happen if.”

Montana State has set aside space on campus for students to quarantine. But that housing is only available for the roughly 3,000 students who live on campus.

Earlier this week, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said he is concerned there might not be adequate space for isolation and quarantine, especially for students living off-campus.

MSU is hiring three to five contact tracers and case managers as part of a $20 million campus testing plan, which Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled last week. Case managers are assigned to check in on students who are isolated or quarantined and ask if they need assistance receiving groceries, laundry or other necessities.

The school has also processed 700 COVID-19 tests in the first two days collaborating with the statewide surveillance testing initiatives. MSU plans to ramp up testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic students when the semester begins.

Cruzado said there’s no threshold that would need to be met in order to trigger a return to online-only classes, because doing so would be “too risky.”

“If we have X number of cases, what happens when you have X minus 10?” Cruzado said.

She added that she’s had daily conversations with health officials. While MSU plans to evaluate safety “in little portions,” the long-term goal for in-person classes remains.

“We’re going to try to do it throughout the entire semester,” Cruzado said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.