Norm Asbjornson Hall

A group of students study for finals on the third floor of Norm Asbjornson Hall on Thursday at Montana State University.

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Montana State University is planning to reopen the Bozeman campus to students this fall and is working on ways to protect students, faculty and employees from the threat of coronavirus.

MSU President Waded Cruzado said in a statement Thursday that MSU wants to keep people safe while offering “a high-quality, on-campus educational experience.”

“Thankfully, as I write this, the state of Montana is showing progress in addressing the COVID-19 emergency, and we are thoughtfully moving toward restoring a new level of normalcy, under new practices,” Cruzado wrote.

“We are actively working on careful plans to open our campus for the fall semester and to offer face-to-face course delivery, in accordance with health guidelines and protocols.”

The announcement came the same day that the Gallatin City-County Health Department reported zero active cases in the Bozeman area, which had been the state’s virus hotspot for many weeks and recorded its first coronavirus death this week.

MSU has groups planning for the fall almost daily, and while no final decisions have been made, Cruzado said, they’re considering several likely teaching changes.

The university is also looking into how to safely provide tutoring, advising, mentoring and on-campus living and recreation.

“Additionally, we are planning for the contingency — should health officials mandate it — of returning to wholly online and remote teaching,” Cruzado wrote.

A lot is at stake for MSU and hundreds of other U.S. colleges and universities forced to close this spring. They have already lost millions of dollars from refunding dorm and dining fees, and colleges face an even worse financial disaster if students don’t return in the fall, or if competing campuses do open while their own offer only online classes. The virus could be “the death knell” of some small colleges already struggling financially, Forbes magazine reported.

MSU Provost Bob Mokwa this week sent faculty members an email outlining the likely teaching changes under consideration. Classes would meet in larger classrooms to allow 6-foot spacing between students, for example. Professors would be asked to make backup plans, in case the virus rebounds and they have to move their classes back online.

And the number of electives and optional core classes would likely be cut to free up more classroom space.

The University of Montana is also looking into trimming class offerings and cutting some adjunct instructors, the non-tenured faculty members who most often focus on teaching, the Missoulian reported.

Asked if cutting elective courses and optional core classes means the Bozeman campus is also looking to cut adjunct positions, Tracy Ellig, vice president for communications, wrote, “We want to protect the academic core mission of MSU while also keeping our employees with us, to the best of our abilities and needs.”

Cruzado and Mokwa’s messages focused on teaching and classroom questions, not the thorny questions of how MSU could keep students safe in dorms, dining halls and social activities like football games.

They didn’t discuss whether MSU would require students and employees to use facial masks, have their temperatures checked or undergo other coronavirus screening, or how any ill students could be quarantined. Ellig said MSU hasn’t made any final decisions on such steps, but everything is under consideration.

“Across the nation, universities are wrestling with the same questions. It’s a monumentally challenging problem,” Ellig wrote, adding, “There is a lot of energy and creativity from our faculty and staff to find solutions.”

Cruzado and Mokwa listed several likely scenarios and changes for the fall:

--Larger-than-usual classrooms would be used for courses to allow more space per student and safer face-to-face instruction. Priority would go to offering face-to-face freshman classes.

--Some class sections would be taught completely online, and more classes would blend in-person and online instruction. Classes could be divided into groups that would rotate between face-to-face and online teaching.

--Laboratory instruction would be used for things that require hands-on teaching.

--New rules would be created for how people enter and exit buildings and classrooms and to control the flow of pedestrian traffic on campus.

--The daily class schedule would be changed to allow more time between classes.

“It is clear that our Fall Semester will include more on-line content than in the past,” Mokwa wrote.

“Many things will be different at MSU this fall, but our work to design and deliver an engaging, quality education that matters to our students and stakeholders is unwavering,” Cruzado wrote.

“Our world needs Bobcat nurses, engineers, teachers, physicians, business people, scientists, artists and other professionals — and your university, Montana State, is prepared to respond.”

Mokwa said two committees are working on plans to reopen the MSU campus, which closed to most students in March as the dangerous new coronavirus reached Montana.

The University Reconstitution Planning Committee, co-chaired by the provost and Terry Leist, vice president for administration and finance, is working on how MSU would handle research, academics, university services, dorms and dining halls, finance, information technology and other areas. The MSU Academic Continuity Task Force is chaired by Tami Eitle, vice provost.

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