MSU Wild

Students walk between classes Tuesday at Montana State University.

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Campuses in the Montana University System are planning to continue with in-person learning for the spring semester, with ongoing efforts to help students’ mental health through the extended winter break.

University system administrators celebrated the efforts of student and staff to complete in-person learning while outlining what January would look like during Thursday’s virtual Board of Regents meeting.

“Our plan is to have a spring semester that looks more or less like the fall semester,” said Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, during the meeting.

He said the Healthy Montana University System task force looks at the environment daily and will continue to adjust and adapt its guidelines to campuses throughout the state.

“The spring semester is daunting to look at based on what we see in the state right now,” Tessman said.

COVID-19 cases throughout the state have continued to rise. On Thursday, the Montana Department of Public Health reported 1,236 new cases with 482 hospitalizations. The state has 20,780 active cases.

Gallatin County reported a record-breaking 349 new cases on Sunday, the first time the county had exceeded 300 cases in a single day. On Thursday, the health department reported 111 new cases, with 24 current hospitalizations. There are 935 active cases in the county.

Last week, Montana State University reported 265 new cases, a 37% increase over the previous week. A total of 990 cases have been reported at MSU since Aug. 1.

Throughout the meeting, the regents and university system administrators spoke highly of the universities’ and students’ efforts to complete the fall semester in-person.

Tessman said while there had been some “heartburn and heartache” during the fall semester, “it was absolutely the best decision to come back to in-person learning.” He added it was also the right decision to end before Thanksgiving break.

He said the mental health and wellness of its students has been a focus of the task force since the pandemic began.

“It’s not the only concern but something that has become more visible and more urgent as the pandemic has worn on,” he told the board.

He said the university system is working to make sure students and employees have access to mental health care; to bolster mental health resources with government funding; to create a streamlined referral service that would allow people to connect with local or virtual resources; and to help students and employees suffering through mental health challenges while in quarantine or isolation.

With classes ending the day before Thanksgiving, Tessman said the university system is also aware students might experience more mental health challenges through the extended winter break.

He said they were pulling best practices from individual student affairs offices, including ways to develop communication plans with students over winter break. One campus has also created a peer-to-peer contact system and plans to conduct check-ins during the break.

“The break is a bit longer and we are conscious of that,” Tessman said.

Clayton Christian, the commissioner of higher education, said every day students get to spend on campus is a valuable day. With campuses a week away from the end of the fall semester, he said it spoke volumes to the work of students, faculty and staff.

“Campuses have mirrored the communities we’re in,” said Christian, referring to the rate of the virus at campuses compared to spread in their respective areas.

Regents and the commissioner also briefly discussed what vaccine distribution would look like. Christian said the university system had a seat at the state’s vaccine task force, but it was still too early to know much. He said they would work to address costs to campuses and students.

The pandemic also continues to impact students’ decisions on whether to apply to higher education, with many opting to hold off.

During the meeting, Scott Lemmon, director of admissions and enrollment strategy, said a national study had found only 47% of high school seniors had applied to colleges. He said 90% of those delaying applications are holding off because of fear and anxiety they have around the pandemic.

Lemmon said the more transparency and certainty universities could provide students the better.

Tessman said the university system would continue to work with the campus task forces to refine and update their guidelines as public health information continues to change.

“This is not the time for victory laps but for reflection,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.