MSU campus

A woman walks through campus Wednesday at Montana State University.

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Montana State University and the entire Montana University System are moving ahead with plans to open campuses to in-person classes this fall, despite the nation’s top infectious disease scientist urging caution.

Montana university leaders aren’t being overly optimistic or ignoring expert advice on the coronavirus pandemic, said Brock Tessman, the University System’s deputy commissioner for academics, research and student affairs.

“Our hope is conditions stay relatively manageable in Montana, and the campuses are able to reopen” with appropriate safety precautions, Tessman said Wednesday from his office in Helena.

The Healthy Fall 2020 task force he heads is being practical and methodical, Tessman said, and is communicating with state and county health officials, the governor’s office and national educational leadership groups.

“Yes, I do feel optimistic all our campuses will return to on-campus life in the fall,” he said. “If conditions deteriorate we would adjust our guidance, and we expect campuses to have contingency plans.”

MSU Provost Bob Mokwa made public Tuesday the Bozeman campus’s initial academic guidelines for professors to hold in-person classes this fall.

On the same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before a Senate committee that reopening schools and colleges would largely depend on the ability to do testing and other factors. Fauci said that having treatments or vaccines to facilitate the return of students by fall semester would be “a bit of a bridge too far.”

Also this week, the 23-campus California State University System announced that it would cancel most in-person classes this fall and instead offer online courses.

Tessman said that it doesn’t surprise him that a large system like California’s or some in New England would decide against trying to open in-person classes.

“Different states are taking different approaches,” Tessman said. “We’re in a very different environment in Montana.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported its survey of U.S. campuses found that 70% are planning to open in the fall with in-person classes, while 8% plan online classes, 5% plan a mix and 13% are waiting to decide.

Montana may have lots of company in planning in-person college classes, but not all states have as low an incidence of the aggressive virus.

Montana has had 462 confirmed cases, second lowest in the country, and 16 deaths, third lowest. Gallatin County, once the state’s hotspot, has had only one death since the pandemic began and just three confirmed cases in the past 20 days, though that could change as businesses begin to open.

Montana university leaders are still undecided on what to do about football, which presents “deep challenges,” Tessman said. “One of the big challenges with football is large audiences and lots of contact.” The NCAA and Big Sky Conference are also trying to figure this out.

“We have no answer right now on football,” Tessman said. “We have to think, plan and develop something that makes sense.”

In his message to faculty members, Mokwa shared the initial guidelines prepared by the Academic Continuity and Contingency Task Force.

The guidelines ask professors to prioritize creating face-to-face and “blended” in-person and online classes for freshmen students. They ask faculty members to offer a mix so that most students have some face-to-face courses — unless students decide themselves to pick online classes.

They recommend the faculty offer some online sections, and consider putting more junior and senior classes and graduate student courses online, because research shows older students have more developed study habits and motivation needed to do well in online classes.

“Every faculty member should be ready to switch to remote delivery if required by public health authorities,” the guidelines say.

MSU is still working on rules for classroom routines like cleaning desks and classrooms, and personal routines, which may include temperature checks, hand washing, social distancing and facemasks, Mokwa wrote.

MSU President Waded Cruzado sent out a weekly update Wednesday saying that seven groups are working on reopening plans under a University Reconstitution Committee, headed by Mokwa and Terry Leist, vice president for administration and finance. The groups are focusing on academics, human resources, student success, athletics, finance, auxiliaries (including dorms and dining halls) and university services.

The URC committee members, Cruzado wrote, “have created a solid foundation for us to build upon as we prepare for the many uncertainties that lie ahead.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.