MSU Mask Wild

A group of masked pedestrian walk by a sign outside of the School of Music reading, "stay healthy and make music," on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

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The Board of Regents approved distributing additional COVID-19 funding to campuses on Tuesday, as many campuses prepare for the start of the spring semester next week.

In the new allocations, Montana State University will receive about $16 million out of the $42 million in COVID-19 funding coming to the university system.

During Tuesday’s virtual board meeting, Shauna Lyons, the university system’s budget analyst, said they don’t have all of the information from the Department of Education. The federal agency has 30 days after the act was passed to release more details.

Like funding from last year’s federal CARES Act, a portion of the university’s money must be allocated specifically for students.

Of MSU’s $16 million allocation from recent federal coronavirus relief funding, $74,085 must be used directly for federal Pell grant students learning exclusively online and roughly $5 million must be used for emergency student grants.

The remaining $10 million can be used for institutional aid like replacing lost revenue and technology upgrades for remote learning, Lyons said.

She said they still don’t know the exact qualifications for the federal money.

MSU’s $16 million in new funding is the highest of any university system campus. Second highest is the University of Montana with $12.5 million, and third is MSU Billings with $4 million.

The Board of Regents last approved spending in September. Since then, the university system was awarded additional coronavirus relief funds from the governor’s office out of its CARES Act money.

The university system had until Dec. 31 to spend it.

Lyons said $10 million was spent to upgrade secure key card access on campus buildings, $350,000 allocated for mental health support on campuses and $800,000 to COVID-19 testing capacity.

During Tuesday’s meeting, regents and staff from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education also discussed the start of the spring semester and ongoing COVID-19 precautions.

Overall, the university system is planning for the spring semester to look like the fall semester.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs, said campus COVID-19 groups met over the winter break to reassess and provide feedback on what could be updated for the spring.

Tessman, who is head of the Healthy Montana University System task force, said there would be updated guidelines for campuses in the next week. Some of the changes include an increased emphasis on mental health resources and additional support for students if they fall ill, he said.

“As we look to come back for the spring, we’re extending emphasis on in-person learning and in-person campus life,” Tessman said.

He said they know from the fall that a lot of student behavior off-campus, including large gatherings, is what drove the spread of the virus. Campuses should emphasize individual responsibility and the importance of remaining vigilant despite the good news of vaccines on the horizon, he said.

“Our approach to testing and tracing is going to stay on symptomatic individuals… That will remain the cornerstone of our approach,” he said.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said the decision to focus on symptomatic testing has to do with volume.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the system with asymptomatic testing and fall behind on symptomatic testing,” he said.

While the priority is on symptomatic testing, the university system is working to put together resources to implement asymptomatic testing for students returning to campus for the spring semester, Tessman.

The priority would be on those returning to residence halls. He said the details were still being worked out but should be ready later this week.

“The fact of the matter is there is really complex infrastructure that surrounds every single test,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.