Masks Campus

Pedestrians and traffic converge at the Aasheim Gate on Monday, July 27, 2020, on Montana State campus. 

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If Montana State University students test positive for coronavirus, it will be up to the Gallatin City-County Health Department, not professors, to decide when students can return to class.

Professors may not even be told when students in their classes test positive, according to new guidelines MSU has issued to faculty members.

MSU’s new “Guidance for Faculty Around COVID-19 Procedures” spells out how the Bozeman campus plans to carry out the commissioner of higher education’s requirement that students and employees wear face masks.

By law, faculty members have never had access to any student’s private health information without their consent, said Tracy Ellig, MSU vice president for communications. Neither, he added, do students have access to the private health information of MSU employees or fellow students.

The county health department doesn’t tell any employers that an employee has tested positive for the virus without the employees’ consent.

“The bottom line is that even in a pandemic, individuals do not surrender their legally protected private health information,” Ellig said.

The commissioner of higher education directed each state campus to come up with its own procedures.

MSU’s guidelines recommend that professors put face mask rules in the course syllabus, which tells students the course content and required texts, as well as expectations, responsibilities, rules and regulations.

“Face coverings are required in all indoor spaces and all enclosed or partially enclosed outdoor spaces,” the suggested syllabus language says. “The MSU community views the adoption of these practices as a mark of good citizenship and respectful care of fellow classmates, faculty and staff.”

For faculty members, cloth face masks are preferred, but they are permitted to wear clear plastic face shields while teaching, the guidelines say.

Most of the guidelines cover what to do if students don’t follow face mask rules.

MSU wrote that its first preference is that faculty members have a conversation with the student and take an educational approach. But anyone who repeatedly disregards the rules can be held responsible.

Faculty members should document students ignoring the rules by sending an email to their department head. They should send a reminder to the students, while allowing the students to explain their actions.

“Remind the student that future non-compliance … will result in a referral to the Dean of Student’s office and the student may be permanent(ly) dismissed from the course,” the guidelines say. If a student’s disruptive behavior is extreme or occurs a second time, instructors may dismiss students from the course for the rest of the semester.

If a student appears ill, faculty members are advised not to discuss the student’s health in front of other people. Instead they should talk about it “sympathetically but directly” by saying something like, “You look like you’re feeling ill. Given the concerns about COVID-19 right now, I’d like you to step out of class and call the student health service … to discuss with them.”

The guidelines make it clear that the Gallatin City-County Health Department, “not the faculty member,” is responsible for determining when a student can return to class.

“There are possible scenarios in which a student could be tested positive and MSU not be informed and the faculty not be informed if city-county does not think it is necessary,” the guidelines say.

Matt Kelley, county health officer, wrote in an email Monday that his staff will “handle cases at MSU the same way we would in other parts of our community.”

That means a public health nurse would contact the person who tested positive, identify their close contacts – anyone who had been within 6 feet of the patient for at least 15 minutes – call the contacts and ask them to quarantine themselves to prevent further spread.

“When necessary to protect the public health, we will coordinate this investigation with MSU,” Kelley said. “We will also take every precaution to protect the confidentiality of the person who is positive for the disease.”

Health nurses might ask MSU to help with food, communications or academic support if the student wished.

“But it is also possible that a staff or student would become positive and have no exposure on campus that would create close contacts and does not need assistance,” he wrote. “In that case, we would have no reason to inform their employer or school. It really depends on the circumstance.”

Kelley said earlier this month that as students return to campus, there are likely to be more virus cases, but his office probably won’t share a lot of detailed information about MSU cases with the public.

“We are going to be pretty cautious,” he wrote, “about sharing specifics about individuals who have tested positive or specific about their affiliation with organizations or locations of housing in order to protect confidentiality.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.