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University of Alaska will take a ‘conservative approach’ to opening its campuses in fall

The Alaska Airlines Center on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage, photographed Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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After Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that a full reopening of the state’s economy is set to begin Friday, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen cautioned that fully reopening college campuses is not yet possible.

“We will likely have a more conservative approach than the state or local communities,” Johnsen said Wednesday during a briefing with the governor.

Johnsen announced a five-phase plan for UA’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each phase in the plan — labeled Phase A through Phase E — includes different degrees of on-site operation and safety measures that depend on conditions in Alaska and local communities. The plan will be used throughout the pandemic “regardless of how long that lasts,” Johnsen said.

UA moved all its programs online in March in response to the pandemic.

Experts say that universities have four conditions that contribute to a higher risk of transmission, according to Johnsen. Those factors include group housing; mass gatherings in classes; extensive travel by students, faculty and researchers; and a younger population with a high likelihood of being asymptomatic.

“It’s one thing to have one of these risks — it’s something to have all four," Johnsen said.

That’s why the university system must proceed with caution, and why the phased plan is not a linear plan for reopening campuses, Johnsen said. Campuses are likely to move back and forth between phases as conditions change with the pandemic, he said.

Summer classes are underway at University of Alaska campuses, and all are being taught online while the system is in its most conservative phase, Phase A. Johnsen said he hopes that UA will move into Phase B soon, which allows for 25% capacity in indoor spaces and requires health screenings of staff and students, among other measures.

Johnsen then hopes the university system will be in Phase C by fall, which allows for 50% capacity in indoor spaces, more in-person classes and opening residence halls at a reduced capacity.

“Students and employees can expect as many in-person classes as safely possible,” he said of that phase.

Some classes will be taught online in the fall, and some may use staggered schedules and social distancing as they resume in-person classes, according to the plan.

Some athletics and events will resume using safety and capacity precautions, Johnsen said.

Under Phase C, dorms will be open but with limits on how many people can be inside, and campuses will need to maintain capacity for quarantine and isolation in housing, Johnsen said. The universities also will use some Plexiglas shields and increase cleaning throughout the campuses.

Johnsen said that administrators sought advice from experts in public health, epidemiology and higher education as well as student leaders when developing the plan, but did not have time to consult extensively with all UA stakeholders.

Tuition prices would not decrease if classes were held online only in the fall, Johnsen said.

The university is likely to take a $35 million to $45 million revenue hit during the next two fiscal years because of the virus, Johnsen told a joint meeting of the Alaska Legislature’s House and Senate education committees last month. The system was already grappling with slashed state funding and preparing to cut an additional $45 million from its budget after a $25 million cut last year. The Board of Regents is considering cutting multiple programs and will vote in June.

“We know that many of our students want to get back to in-person attendance in their classes and we know that many of our employees are eager to come back to campus,” Johnsen said. “We’re balancing that passion for education and learning and teaching with a need to maintain a safe working and learning environment at our university campuses.”

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