MSU First Day of Classes

Sarah St Clair, left, a Montana State registered dietitian, hands out free Clean 'Cat Kits to MSU students during the first day of class on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. MSU had about 27,000 kits to hand out at four different stations around campus.

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As students walked up and down South 11th Avenue Monday morning, a voice sprang from a tent.

“Hey you got a clean kit?” called out Joe Brown, an export control officer at Montana State University’s applied research lab.

He repeated the question as more people passed — like he was selling Cracker Jacks at a ballgame. Instead, he was just one of many volunteers handing out the school’s Clean ’Cat Kits at one of the four stations set up on the first day of the fall semester.

The kits include hand sanitizer, a surface sanitizer and cloth and a face mask.

“They’ve been going like hotcakes,” said Sarah St Clair, who works in medical services. By around 11 a.m., around 300 kits had been handed out at the station by Linfield Hall.

With classes beginning Monday and the rush of students returning to campus, MSU shared messages to communicate how precautions should be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A sign by Wilson Hall read, “Wear your mask, social distance, keep classes on campus. We’re in this together.” Inside classrooms, specific seats were blocked off to allow students to spread out.

While the start of the semester featured these changes, several students said they were pleased to return to some in-person classes. Many of them, though, have a hybrid model also with online instruction.

Some students said Monday they’re concerned that a potential outbreak on campus would push classes entirely back online the way the spring semester finished because of the pandemic.

Sitting beneath a tree between classes, Madison Coon and Ashleigh Bol agreed they were happy to return to have a structured schedule again and reunite with friends.

The two sophomores said they’re uncertain whether the semester will be completed with in-person classes.

“I think everybody wants to not only protect themselves,” Coon said, “but nobody wants to do what we had to do last semester.”

Various campus organizations set up tables Monday to recruit new members. A couple friends met up with high-fives and hugs. Others rode bikes and skateboards. Some students wore masks and others didn’t while walking outside. Students said masks, which are required inside, were mostly worn in buildings.

Ryan Thorn, a second semester freshman and mechanical engineering major, said in-person classes are “loads better” than being online, even though only one of his three classes Monday was in person.

He complimented the way MSU has opened campus since he appreciates the in-person touch. Thorn lives in an apartment but has considered the risks of an outbreak in a dorm that could send classes back online entirely.

“That’s my biggest concern,” Thorn said.

“I would not want to be the decision-makers right now,” said senior exercise science major Katherine Onstad, who added the pandemic is affecting every aspect of college life.

There are roughly 3,000 students living on-campus this semester and total enrollment for the fall won’t be known until after the 15th day of classes once students have paid tuition and fees. The school has dedicated space for quarantine housing, expecting some students will contract COVID-19. But that space is only available for students who live on campus.

Since community spread is occurring in Gallatin County and Bozeman, contact tracing efforts will be more challenging said Tracy Knoedler, Gallatin City-County Health Department human services director.

MSU is hiring contact tracers to assist in identifying close contacts who would also likely need to be tested for the virus or isolate for cases related to the school. They’ll be part of the county’s health department team, too. So far, contact tracing has handled cases adequately, Knoedler said, but the return of students creates unknowns.

“We have concerns for having more people here,” Knoedler said. “We have concerns over where MSU students will be in the community. Are they being exposed in places they’re visiting?”

MSU President Waded Cruzado said last week there’s no set number on how many coronavirus cases would trigger a return to online-only instruction.

In the meantime, students will enjoy the class time they have not knowing for certain if it will last until November.

“Everybody’s got a part in this,” Thorn said. “Everybody’s got their part to wash their hands, wear a mask and just not be in everyone’s business.”

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