FARGO — North Dakota State University and other higher education schools in the state will suspend in-person classes into early April but will educate students remotely as coronavirus spreads in the U.S.

NDSU announced Thursday morning, March 12, the campus will not hold face-to-face classes from March 23 to April 3. The university will remain open so faculty and staff can hold classes online, the email said.

"Class instruction will transition to virtual instruction for the two weeks following spring break," Mike Borr, director of the NDSU Police Department and Safety Office, said during a news conference.

The university will dismiss classes at the end of Friday, March 13, for spring break, which begins next week. Students who leave for spring break "should plan not to return to campus" until face-to-face classes resume, NDSU said in an email to employees. That could be as early as April 6, Borr said.

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NDSU will continue to monitor the situation in case it needs to extend that period or cancel any campus-sponsored events, Borr said.

The announcement comes a day after North Dakota confirmed its first case of coronavirus. Minnesota and South Dakota also have confirmed their own cases.

"As we all know, the virus is spreading rapidly through the United States," said Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease physician and professor who works in the Department of Public Health at NDSU. "I think we can very reasonably expect that those numbers are going to continue to increase and that we will start seeing local transmission. "

The University of North Dakota, Minot State University, Williston State College and North Dakota State College of Science all announced on Thursday similar measures to move to virtual instruction from March 23 to April 3 in light of the epidemic.

“The health of our community is our most important priority,” NDSCS President John Richman said in a statement. “While there are relatively few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the region, we feel this is the best decision for the health of our students and employees, and the greater community.”

Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease physician and a NDSU professor, talks about coronavirus at NDSU on Thursday, March 12. Chris Hagen / The Forum
Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease physician and a NDSU professor, talks about coronavirus at NDSU on Thursday, March 12. Chris Hagen / The Forum

Public higher education institutions will be allowed to decide how to respond to the situation, said Billie Jo Lorius, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota University System.

Operations will continue at NDSU and NDSCS. Dorms and campus dining will remain open for students who are unable to leave campus, the schools said. The institutions will work to accommodate those who do not have access to online resources.

"We realize that the campus environment is their home, and so we're remaining open so that they can return to their home," Borr said.

Suspending in-person classes will help prevent the spread of coronavirus within the community with social distancing, Borr said. The two-week period aligns with health recommendations for individuals who may come in contact with the virus to quarantine for 14 days, he said.

"It's not possible for us to separate ourselves from every human being and sort of live in an isolated bubble," Carson said. "What the focus for public health is, is try and minimize as much as possible large congregations of people."

Borr said it's fortunate the move to virtual instruction happens after spring break so leadership has time to reevaluate the changing situation locally and around the country.

NDSU has been preparing for a response to coronavirus for some time, Borr said.

"We will continue to fulfill our mission by ensuring that students are able to meet their educational requirements and faculty are able to continue their research and scholarship," Borr said.

Minnesota State suspends classes

Minnesota State colleges and universities also moved Thursday to limit the spread of coronavirus by suspending classes.

Class will resume on March 23 for the 32 schools currently on spring break, according to a news release. The five institutions that are scheduled to begin their break next Monday, March 16, will head back to class on March 30.

In a statement, Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said school administrators, faculty and staff will spend the extra week without classes "exploring alternative modes of delivery and adjust campus learning spaces to ensure the safety of our communities."

"Minnesota State is continuously reviewing a range of strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on our campuses and the communities in which we live and serve," he said.

Effective March 16, out-of-state business travel for Minnesota State students, faculty and staff will also be suspended. School- and business-related travel to other countries was suspended earlier on Feb. 28.

Campuses will remain open throughout the suspension, according to announcement, as will residence halls and dining facilities.

The chancellor oversees 37 colleges and universities, including Moorhead's branches of Minnesota State University and Minnesota State Community and Technical College.

Concordia College in Moorhead is monitoring the situation closely, the private school said Thursday in a statement.

“As of March 11, guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health do not direct Minnesota colleges or universities to move to fully online instruction,” Concordia Public Safety Director Bill MacDonald said in the statement. “While Concordia is not moving to online instruction at this time, Dean Susan Larson is working with faculty to prepare for remote/online instruction if the need arises.”