Minnesota colleges, universities cautiously plan to reopen campuses in fall

A student sits alone in the library of Bemidji State University on Thursday, March 12. As with other colleges and universities in the state, BSU closed its campus because of the coronavirus pandemic. Forum News Service file photo
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota universities and colleges are planning to welcome college students back to campus this fall, but the terms of their reopening are still being worked out.

Higher education officials on Tuesday, April 28, told state lawmakers that they are still grappling with the question of how to safely hold in-person classes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Potential solutions range from the use of larger classrooms that allow for social distancing, they said, to a heavier reliance on web-based teaching tools.

Much depends on the level of severity that the pandemic achieves by fall, they said. They said the possible continuation of online-only education, which has been widely adopted with the closure of schools and colleges, cannot be ruled out.

Minnesota State school system and University of Minnesota officials, among others, made their comments to lawmakers Tuesday as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state climbed to approximately 4,100. According to the state Department of Health, more than 1,900 people in Minnesota who were infected with disease, which is caused by the new coronavirus, have recovered to a point where they no longer require hospitalization. But so far, at least 300 people have died because of it while another 300 remain in the hospital.

It remains unclear when the virus will ease its grip on the region and nation. What is more certain, however, is the financial toll that social restrictions put in place to curb its spread are taking on Minnesota colleges and universities.


Members of the Minnesota House and Senate were told Tuesday that economic pain caused by the pandemic has resulted in pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs for post-secondary school employees across the state. Minnesota State officials estimate that the crisis will cost the school system between $35 million and $45 million in lost revenue and emergency expenses.

There was broad consensus Tuesday that money set aside for colleges and universities in the federal coronavirus relief act will likely not sufficiently cover their losses and raises questions on how to reign in spending. The act called for approximately $14 billion in funding for U.S. colleges, half of which is to be given to students in the form of grants.

"The funding is inadequate to cover all the losses and additional costs, especially at our residential colleges and universities," said Bill Maki, Minnesota State vice chancellor of finance.

A dip in enrollment and attendance could further exacerbate pandemic-related costs incurred by Minnesota colleges. Officials said they were still forecasting what fall might bring, with University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel saying university enrollment could suffer by 10%.

The situation may be no less serious for Minnesota's private colleges. Gustavus Adolphus College President Rebecca Bergman told state Senators the federal relief package is estimated to cover less than 25% of their losses.

"It is not a silver bullet," she said.

The extent to which Minnesota colleges will be able to reopen this fall — and begin to heal financially — remains an open question. For lawmakers, Sen. Jason Isaacson said the colleges' yet-to-be-finalized losses and projections makes it difficult to respond.

"The sooner we can get that sense, the sooner we can possibly take some action to correct it," Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, said.


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