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With the start of the fall semester only weeks away and COVID-19 case counts on the rise, college campuses across Montana are once again rolling out plans to prevent the spread of the virus.

Face masks continue to be the predominant strategy employed by campus officials, along with robust testing and an emphasis on encouraging voluntary vaccination. But in a departure from the statewide mandates that characterized the fall of 2020, the Montana University System has left COVID-19 response planning up to the system’s individual two- and four-year institutions. Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Brock Tessman said the reliance on local decision-making this semester is meant to reflect the increased complexity of the pandemic.

“What we have on the ground is much more variation, both between the different levels of guidance that we’re getting and the conversations we’re having, and then across space,” Tessman said. “Different communities in Montana, different campus communities, are experiencing this uptick in very different ways.”

The result of the decentralization is a mixture of campus-specific initiatives and tactics, some less stringent than others but all aimed at the same stated goal: to offer in-person instruction and a nominally normal college experience while safeguarding the health of students, faculty and staff.

MONTANA FLAGSHIPS AND AFFILIATES 

Within the past two weeks, the University of Montana and Montana State University both issued face mask recommendations for all shared indoor spaces on their campuses this fall, including classrooms and dining halls. The recommendations apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Similar guidance has been issued at affiliate campuses including MSU Billings and UM Western in Dillon.

UM spokesperson David Kuntz said masks will also continue to be required inside UM’s Curry Health Center and on all public transportation. UM plans to keep masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant available for students throughout the semester, Kuntz added, and has accumulated a “good stockpile” of personal protective equipment for campus staff in the event of a surge in cases. 

MSU spokesperson Michael Becker wrote via email that hand sanitizer will be available at stations across the MSU campus, and that masks are required in the campus clinic at University Health Partners.

“The university wants to remain a strong partner in getting the community to the other side of the pandemic, and so all ideas are open and we’ll continue to explore the best ways to deploy those shots across both our student population and the Missoula community.”

UM spokesperson David Kuntz

Testing will play an ongoing role in the COVID-19 response at UM and MSU as well, with campuses offering free testing to all students and staff who show symptoms. Anyone testing positive for the virus will have to follow the same quarantine and isolation procedures established last year. Quarantine housing will be available for on-campus resident students at both universities, and COVID task forces at UM and MSU will continue to work closely with local health officials to share case data and conduct contact tracing. 

The biggest difference for Montana’s two flagship universities this fall is the availability of several COVID-19 vaccines, which will be widely available for students and staff on both campuses. MSU recently announced a sweepstakes for students to encourage voluntary vaccination, offering a total of 76 prizes including season ski passes, $500 airline vouchers and $5,000 financial assistance awards. Students must be fully vaccinated to enter. The drawing will take place Dec. 22.

Kuntz said UM has no plans for a similar vaccination sweepstakes, but that it is continuing to participate in a statewide incentive program launched by the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices and Town Pump. Through that program, Montana college students are eligible for a $10 Town Pump gift card for each vaccine shot they receive. UM will also be hosting mobile vaccine clinics across campus during the first three weeks of the semester, Kuntz said, and is exploring options to offer vaccination at public events such as football tailgates.

“The university wants to remain a strong partner in getting the community to the other side of the pandemic, and so all ideas are open and we’ll continue to explore the best ways to deploy those shots across both our student population and the Missoula community,” Kuntz said.

According to spokesperson Maureen Brakke, MSU Billings plans to continue offering vaccine clinics in partnership with RiverStone Health this fall, with the next community clinic scheduled for Sept. 7.

CARROLL COLLEGE

In Helena, students at Carroll College will have to comply with at least one mandate at the outset of the fall semester. President John Cech said that for the first two weeks beginning Aug. 21, face masks will be mandatory in all classrooms regardless of vaccination status. 

Carroll College also plans to conduct campus-wide COVID-19 testing of its student population, as it did at the beginning of the previous spring term. Even students who have been vaccinated will be encouraged to participate. The testing will be administered in partnership with Shodair Children’s Hospital, and students will be able to provide saliva samples for testing at stations across campus. According to Cech, Carroll College will continue working with area hospitals and Lewis and Clark County health officials to track cases and perform contact tracing.

“It’s all about creating a sense of community and ensuring that students, faculty and staff, that we all take this seriously.”

Carroll college President John Cech

As for the vaccine, Cech said, “we are not requiring vaccination for our students, but we are strongly recommending students be vaccinated either before they come to campus or we will have vaccination clinics on campus when students check in and throughout the fall.” Cech added that campus merchandise such as water bottles or sweaters will likely be offered to students as vaccination incentives.

In addition to testing stations and vaccine clinics, Cech said, Carroll College will host a series of panel discussions early in the semester specifically about COVID-19. Campus and community health experts will speak to the current state of the pandemic and try to debunk various myths about the virus and the vaccine, he said, and students will be invited to share their own experiences from the past year and a half.

“We’re going to bring in some people who have been affected by COVID-19 and give them a chance to tell their stories,” Cech said. “It’s all about creating a sense of community and ensuring that students, faculty and staff, that we all take this seriously.”

COMMUNITY COLLEGES

After a mix of in-person and online class offerings during the spring semester, Flathead Valley Community College is easing back into a primarily in-person semester this fall. Face masks will no longer be required in campus buildings, and vaccination is not mandatory. However, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, President Jane Karas emphasized the benefits of both in an emailed statement.

“At this time we are strongly encouraging everyone to wear a mask when in close proximity to other individuals while inside college buildings,” Karas said. “We will continue to assess the situation on a daily basis. We also strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.”

Dawson Community College in Glendive and Miles Community College in Miles City have issued similar masking and vaccination recommendations. Miles Community College President Ron Slinger said MCC is continuing to promote messaging about social distancing and hand washing, and has set aside a limited number of on-campus residence spaces for quarantine and isolation for students who may contract COVID-19. So far, he said, the campus has not hosted any mobile vaccination clinics, but it has participated in OCHE’s Town Pump incentive program.

“We will continue to assess the situation on a daily basis. We also strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.”

Flathead valley community college President Jane Karas

One aspect of the pandemic that has proven helpful for MCC heading into the fall semester and beyond is the allocation of federal funding to assist with the campus’ COVID-19 response. Slinger said those funds have improved the college’s technological capabilities considerably.

“It’s allowed us to move forward probably five to seven years quicker than we probably would have been able to with technology in the classroom that enables us to have distanced learning and high-flex classes,” Slinger said. “We’re very fortunate and thankful for that.”

TRIBAL COLLEGES

COVID-19 protocols at tribal colleges in the state are shaping up to be markedly more stringent this fall. At Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, in-person classes will resume under social-distanced conditions, but masks are still required indoors and new temperature gauges have been installed at building entry points. Masks will also be required at Blackfeet Community College, where campus and community leaders plan to meet next week to discuss the latest case data and finalize instruction plans for the coming semester.

Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation is adhering to the tribe’s face mask mandate and taking its protocols a step further. President David Yarlott said the college will require that all fall-semester students be vaccinated. He added that as of this week, 100% of the college staff are fully vaccinated.

“The students said they want face-to-face learning, so we told them if they want that then they have to follow protocols.”

Chief Dull Knife College president RICHARD LITTLEBEAR

“We’re taking this seriously,” Yarlott said.

Even with the vaccine requirement, Little Big Horn College plans to conduct temperature checks at facility entrances and limit room capacities. For example, he said, the campus computer lab will be limited to 10 people at a time in hour-and-a-half stints, and surfaces will be sanitized between each group. The same practice will be applied to the library and the college’s health and wellness center.

Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, said his campus too will be requiring face masks and limiting the number of students in classrooms to facilitate social distancing. The college’s approach throughout 2021 has been to follow guidance from the CDC and the tribe and adopt the strictest recommended protocols. If a spike in cases does occur, Littlebear said, his staff is prepared to return to a hybrid instruction model.

“But the students said they want face-to-face learning, so we told them if they want that then they have to follow protocols,” he said, adding that compliance with all campus requirements has been good throughout the spring and summer.

ATHLETICS

Given the considerations of team interaction and travel, student athletes across Montana will likely garner added scrutiny this fall. The Big Sky Conference, of which UM and MSU are members, is slated to finalize its policies for the fall semester within the next week.

The Frontier Conference announced its return-to-play policy Aug. 5, which spokesperson Wally Feldt said is intended to individualize rather than standardize guidelines for participating campuses. The guidelines emphasize identification and isolation of symptomatic student athletes to ensure the safety of teammates, and encourage all athletes, staff and fans to get vaccinated. The announcement did not include any specific requirements regarding testing frequency and screening. The Montana campuses participating in the Frontier Conference are Carroll College, UM Western, MSU Northern in Havre, Montana Tech in Butte and Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Tessman said OCHE is “keeping a close eye” on conference-level discussions impacting student athletes in Montana, but has not issued any statewide guidelines of its own for those students.

Disclosure: Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, is married to MTFP director of development and operations Kristin Tessman. MTFP business staff do not have input into editorial coverage.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.