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University of Alaska moves to halt most in-person classes, move students off campus due to coronavirus

The University of Alaska Anchorage campus, photographed on Friday, July 12, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen announced Thursday that the statewide university system is moving to end most in-person classes for the rest of the semester and take other precautions due to the new coronavirus.

“While there are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alaska, prevention is critical,” Johnsen wrote in a message to the university communities Thursday.

Just hours later, state officials announced the first positive case of COVID-19 in Alaska.

Johnsen said the university will move to online classes and other forms of distance instruction for the remainder of the spring semester.

Courses that require hands-on learning, such as labs, will continue to be held in person. But they will occur with special precautions, such as social distancing to prevent person-to-person contact, and frequent cleaning of surfaces to prevent the spread of the virus, university officials said Thursday.

More than 20,000 students attend universities within the UA system, with locations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and rural communities.

The much-smaller Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage also announced similar measures to prevent the spread of the virus Thursday, including that it will move to distance learning for the rest of the semester.

At both universities, spring break will continue for another week, giving teachers time to prepare for the changes. Classes will resume March 23.

The state university system and APU will also ask students living in dormitories to return home for the rest of the semester.

“Students can either move completely out of the residence halls now, or gather anything they need for the rest of the semester and return later to move out of their rooms,” the University of Alaska said in its statement. “There will be a mechanism for students to request exceptions if they are unable to leave the residence halls until later in the spring.”

Officials with both universities said they are evaluating options for reimbursing students affected by the changes to dormitory housing and meal plans.

About 1,600 students live in residence at University of Alaska campuses, Johnsen said.

“We are putting together a plan to support students,” he said.

Exceptions will be made for students without that option, the universities said in prepared statements.

“It is a tough time,” Johnsen said. “It would be irresponsible of us not to be taking the most prudent measures at this time.”

The moves come after Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday declared a public health emergency to help the state prepare for the virus.

The World Health Organization this week classified the outbreak as a pandemic for its global spread to more than 100 countries, killing more than 4,300.

The University of Alaska, which has had its budget cut repeatedly in recent years, will approach the governor for financial support, he said. It will also be looking for internal sources of revenue, Johnsen said.

The statewide system said it will cancel or postpone gatherings of at least 25 people until March 31. The university system could extend that date, depending on future circumstances, officials said.

The University of Alaska has not canceled commencement ceremonies, currently planned for May, but will weigh possible cancellation as events unfold, officials said.

More than 6,500 employees who work at the University of Alaska campuses will still come to work, as long as they aren’t showing signs of the virus, such as a fever and other flu-like symptoms, Johnsen said.

“University offices will remain open throughout the rest of the semester, unless the situation warrants changing that,” the statement said.

The university has previously taken steps that include travel restrictions for employees and two weeks of self-quarantine for students and employees with symptoms of the virus.

APU, with about 513 students, said it will cancel commencement events planned in April. Affected students will be invited to participate in the fall 2020 commencement ceremonies, the university said in a statement.

APU will close the Moseley Sports Center and the Atwood gym to public use. Advising appointments and meetings for other student needs should happen over the phone, that university said.

Officials with the University of Alaska system and APU said they came to their decision after extensive deliberation. Johnsen said the state university worked with experts in health and education, among others, before creating the plan.

Robert Onders, APU president, said in a statement to students and employees that this is not the ideal way to close out the semester.

"APU is a resilient institution dedicated to the success of our students and the health of our communities, and we will continue to work together to respond effectively to this challenge,” he said.

The University of Alaska put out the following statement Thursday afternoon:

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen today announced plans to extend spring break, move classes to distance delivery, move students out of campus residence halls and cancel large campus events due to concerns about the worldwide spread of COVID-19.

“Please know that this decision was made after much deliberation, relying on expert advice from public health agencies and the experiences of other universities nationwide. Our primary concern is and will continue to be the safety of our students and employees.”

The university system will suspend face-to-face delivery of most courses in favor of distance delivery for the rest of the spring semester. In order to give faculty members time to develop alternative ways to deliver courses, spring break is being extended a week. Classes will restart via distance delivery on March 23. University offices will remain open throughout the rest of the semester, unless the situation warrants changing that.

UA is also asking students to leave on-campus residence halls for the rest of the semester as a preventative measure. Students can either move completely out of the residence halls now, or gather anything they need for the rest of the semester and return later to move out of their rooms. There will be a mechanism for students to request exceptions if they are unable to leave the residence halls until later in the spring.

Finally, in order to help in efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus in our communities, the universities will cancel or postpone all events and gatherings of 25 people or more through March 31. University leaders will revisit events guidance later this month and make a determination regarding whether to cancel events for the rest of the semester. That discussion will include a decision on commencement ceremonies.

Leadership teams at each of the universities are already working on plans to support students and employees during this transition and throughout the rest of the semester.

“The chancellors and I recognize that these changes will present significant challenges to our students and their families, and our employees,” Johnsen wrote. “Thank you for your patience, perseverance and teamwork as we work through the incredible challenges posed by this situation.”

Alaska Pacific University issued this statement Thursday afternoon:

Alaska Pacific University (APU) today announced a number of preventive measures it will take to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, including moving classes online for the remainder of the academic term and canceling its spring commencement.

“Although there have been no confirmed cases of the virus in Alaska, we are taking preventive measures to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff, and communities throughout the state, to help slow the spread of the virus, and to ensure students are about to complete their courses and educational programs in a timely way,” Onders told members of the APU community. “By reducing the number of people on campus, we can help Alaska mitigate the risks of the virus.”

In an email to students, faculty and staff, APU President Bob Onders outlined the University’s plan. It includes:

● Canceling in-person classes through Friday, March 20 to give faculty time to prepare for distance learning.

● Resuming a normal class schedule on Monday, March 23, with most classes held online using the University’s Blackboard platform. A handful of classes will continue to meet in person, including science labs and some music courses.

● Asking resident students to return home for the remainder of the academic term.

(Students with extenuating circumstances may request an exception to stay on campus, where there will also be modified dining options available.) Students will be able to store their belongings until the fall term.

● Closing Moseley Sports Center and the Atwood gym to public use.

● Requesting that advising appointments and other student business with campus offices be conducted over the phone or online.

● Canceling commencement events in April. Students who graduate in the spring will be invited to participate in the Fall 2020 commencement ceremony.

The decision, which comes near the end of APU’s spring break, was made the day after Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a public health emergency in response to the global spread of the coronavirus. “Social distancing,” or reducing in-person contact between people, is one of the most significant steps that can be taken to slow the global spread of the virus and the potentially fatal disease it causes, COVID-19. Similar arrangements have been made at colleges and universities around the nation, including the University of Alaska.

With no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, APU is taking proactive steps to help “flatten the curve” of the virus’ spread. Experts have stressed the value of social distancing and other measures that can slow the rate of infection in order to reduce strain on health care resources.

Onders acknowledged that the changes are a less than ideal end to the semester but said the University is taking every precaution to protect its students, faculty, staff, and the greater Anchorage community.

“APU is a resilient institution dedicated to the success of our students and the health of our communities,” Onders said. “We will continue to work together to respond effectively to this challenge.”

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