Empty Campus

A person walks along Centennial Mall Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at Montana State University in Bozeman.

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With hopes of reopening the state’s 13 colleges and universities this fall, the Montana University System on Tuesday appointed a task force to consider how campuses may safely welcome back 45,000 students without endangering their health from the coronavirus pandemic.

Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, issued a statement saying university officials will work with public health experts at the federal, state and local levels.

“Now, because of our efforts as a university system coupled with the diligence of citizens across our state, we are in a position to work with health experts to start considering how we can safely and enthusiastically welcome students back to our campuses for a healthy fall semester,” Christian wrote.

Yet with no vaccination or proven treatment for the new coronavirus, and the only safeguards being social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks and tracking and quarantining exposed individuals, it’s still unclear how American universities can safely reopen in the fall.

“Though the task force may not aim to recreate ‘business as usual,’ we expect that our ‘new normal’ will recognize the challenges of COVID-19,” he said, while taking advantage of some of the recent innovations “that will make academic and campus life better than it has ever been for our students and employees.”

The task force will “develop strategies across our operational areas, from student housing to athletics and everything in between,” Christian wrote.

The coronavirus threat forced the University System last month to ask most students to leave campuses and return home. Classes were moved online, and the University System had to offer millions of dollars in dorm and dining fee refunds, and cancel graduations and other major events.

Montana has recorded 437 confirmed cases and 12 deaths to date, far fewer than most states. Gallatin County has by the most cases in Montana, one-third of the state’s total. Christian himself was diagnosed with coronavirus.

Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to announce this week a plan for a gradual reopening of the state, which is still under stay-at-home orders.

Christian praised students and employees for their “bravery, resilience and patience” in response to the virus.

The Montana University System Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force, which will begin meeting this week, has 12 members, including three from Bozeman’s Montana State University and Gallatin College. They are MSU Provost Bob Mokwa, Carina Beck, director of MSU’s Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success, and Stephanie Gray, dean of Gallatin College.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic affairs for the University System, will chair the task force.

Other task force members represent campuses around the state: Jon Harbor, provost of the University of Montana; Melinda Arnold, provost for MSU-Billings; Sandy Bauman, associate dean for academic and student affairs at Helena College; Les Cook, chancellor of Montana Tech; Leanne Frost, director of general studies at Great Falls College; Nicole Hazelbaker, dean of students at UM-Western; Dave Krueger, dean of the College of Technical Sciences at MSU-Northern; and Steve Thompson, director of campus recreation at UM.

“Designing a careful, but adjustable plan for a Healthy Fall 2020 will be an immense undertaking, but this is the kind of challenge the Montana University System will always embrace and conquer,” Christian wrote.

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