GRAND FORKS — Students across the North Dakota University System may be heading back to campus this fall.

After more than an hour of discussion during its regular meeting Wednesday, April 29, the State Board of Higher Education is moving toward reopening campuses again in 2020.

But the steps to get there will take some time and consideration, board Chairman Nick Hacker said.

“This isn't as simple as just students show up and come back to class,” Hacker said after the meeting. “We're building an airplane while we're flying it.”

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The board unanimously passed a motion Wednesday with the understanding that students will be back on campus this fall. The motion also allowed for some experiential learning classes to happen on campuses during the summer.

Campuses across the system closed in mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic. The institutions are now closed throughout the rest of the spring semester.

The discussion comes two days after Gov. Doug Burgum announced the state will begin implementing its “North Dakota Smart Restart” plan, which will allow previously closed businesses to begin to reopen under certain criteria.

During his daily press conference Wednesday, Burgum addressed the system’s intent to move forward with on-campus activities and said the decision has his “full support.”

He said he had a recent conversation with leaders from the board and the university system.

“Given the population of the typical age of a college student is at less risk, I think it's a smart way to signal that we're going to try to figure out a way to add, at least at a minimum, a mix of in-person and online (education) heading into next fall,” Burgum said.

Colleges and universities need time to reach out to students; students need time to assess their options as well. That, Hacker said, is why the discussion is happening now.

Details about what the fall semester may look like for students are still in the works, with collaboration from the individual campuses and the system to create a framework for the academic year. Areas like facilities and housing might be different than they have been in the past. Additionally, class delivery methods might change too, Hacker noted.

“There’s going to have to be a very flexible learning environment,” Hacker said.

Institutions may have to be prepared to make changes to their contingency plans should a cluster pop up on campus, he said.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Burgum said all university system plans could change. He noted the system had to make adjustments quickly this spring to adapt to the situation at hand.

“We were in a bad Indiana Jones movie (when this started), on a log riding through some whitewater. Maybe next year if it comes back, we'll be on a nice boat that we built that we can sail through the storm together better,” he said.

The system formed a task force, made up of North Dakota University System presidents and others, to further discuss the pandemic.

North Dakota wouldn’t be alone in bringing back students to campus. Multiple other states, including Iowa, Alabama, Georgia and many more, are also working on plans to bring students back to campus in the fall.

Hacker noted that universities in North Dakota do not have as high of a population density as urban campuses, which could prove beneficial for the state.

Risk factors

The board spent more than an hour talking to Dr. Paul Carson, director of the North Dakota State University Center for Immunization Research and Education, about the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion included what the impacts could be on faculty, staff and students, as well as the financial impacts created by the pandemic.

Carson said the state has continued to increase its testing capacity since it had its first case in mid-March. Additionally, the state has a hospitalization rate and a death rate that has been relatively low in comparison to the rest of the nation and much below North Dakota’s surge capacity.

The 20-29 age group makes up about a fifth of the state’s overall 1,033 cases. The age group has had 206 cases with two hospitalizations, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Health.

“I think it’s very appropriate for the board to be asking the questions of how we may restart normal campus life in the hopefully not too distant future,” Carson said, noting the hospitalization and death rates are skewed more toward the elderly population.

Carson noted that it would be important to protect those who are most vulnerable to the illness, including students, faculty and staff who have underlying health conditions.

“Most people who get it are going to do fine,” Carson said, noting a high percentage of the population who have contracted COVID-19 have minimal symptoms or are asymptomatic. “That said, there’s still going to be a noticeable, but small percentage, that would become seriously ill.”

Retha Mattern, staff representative on the board, noted while students may be more likely to carry the virus asymptomatically, faculty and staff could be more susceptible to COVID-19 with higher implications.

“If faculty members and staff members start getting sick, who’s left to teach the classes at that point?” she said.

Carson, who also teaches courses within the system, said he is slightly more vulnerable to the virus as he’s about to turn 60 and has asthma. He said he will likely have to make some adjustments to how he teaches, whether it involves more online work or teaching while wearing a mask. Other faculty and staff will likely have to make similar decisions.