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University of Alaska heads toward fall with evolving plans for reopening campuses

The University of Alaska Anchorage campus. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Details about university fall plans are still taking shape for Alaska campuses as coronavirus cases rise statewide.

“By their very nature, universities are places where people gather in person — to learn, study, work and socialize,” University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen wrote in a June message to the university posted online. “The constant flow of people in and out of campus poses an elevated risk of spreading COVID-19, creating an uncertain environment for fall.”

The University of Alaska statewide system moved fully online in March when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the statewide shutdown. Alaska Pacific University also followed suit and moved most of its courses online.

In May, UA announced a five-phase plan in a “conservative approach” to reopening during the pandemic. The university system is currently in “phase B — limiting indoor spaces to 25% capacity, and only those classes that can’t be conducted online are allowed to happen in person.

Marmion Grimes is a spokeswoman for the university system’s incident management team, which oversees that phase planning. She said that discussions are “ongoing” about which phase the university will be in come fall.

The five-phase plan isn’t linear, meaning the system could move into a more-restricted phase or a less-restricted phase, depending upon conditions with the virus in Alaska.

Nothing is certain right now, she said.

The university is considering conditions in individual communities, conditions statewide, the advice of epidemiologists and public health officials and the availability and feasibility of protective and safety measures, she said.

“Those things all come together to help us decide what is an appropriate phase for the university,” she said.

The discussions also include input from the chancellors of each university because each campus faces different challenges and needs, Grimes said.

Decisions such as whether to require masks on campus or the capacity to which residence halls can safely be filled are left largely up to the individual universities, Grimes said.

And even if UA as a whole moves into a less-restrictive phase, individual campuses can make their own decisions about to what extent classes will go back to being in-person and what other safety measures will be in place.

Sandeen announced in June that UAA will stay in “phase B” this fall. That means most students and faculty will work remotely and the majority of classes will be held online.

Like UA, universities nationwide are weighing their options and deciding how to operate their campuses in the fall as the coronavirus pandemic persists. Many are offering mostly online courses.

Some are requiring face masks on campuses, while others recommend them.

Under UA’s “phase B,” masks are “encouraged.” But at University of Alaska Southeast, masks will be requirement for anyone on campus this fall, UAS spokeswoman Keni Campbell said. Its campuses are closed to the public but will reopen in August.

The planning process is complicated by multiple factors: The susceptibility of faculty, staff and students to the virus varies greatly, and in-person classes aren’t safe for everyone.

Still, some classes can only be effectively taught in person.

Another complicating factor is that according to a recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announcement, the State Department will not issue visas to international students whose universities or academic programs are fully online.

At University of Alaska Fairbanks, Chancellor Dan White wrote in a university-wide message Tuesday that he expects about a third of classes will be held online, another third in person and the final third as “hybrid” classes with some work happening online and in person.

That will help the university keep international students enrolled, he said.

At UAA, most classes will be online-only, according to its plan. Some classes may be in a hybrid format, while other in-person classes may operate on staggered schedules to reduce the amount of people gathering in one place.

Though most UA classes will be held online, tuition should remain the same, former UA President Jim Johnsen said in May.

Some Alaska college students depend on housing in residence halls, densely populated places that were mostly shut down along with UA campuses in March. Only students who were given exceptions could stay in their dorms.

At UAF, 600 students have requested to stay in the residence halls in fall, according to White. It will accommodate them with one-person rooms, with a residence hall for quarantine and another for isolation.

“Access to residence is for many access to education,” White wrote.

He said without access to residence halls, many students would not have safe housing or reliable internet to participate in distance learning.

UAA residence halls are closed except to students with no other options for housing.

Masks are also required on campus, as long as Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s June 26 order which requires them in indoor public spaces lasts, according to a campus-wide message from Sandeen.

“This pandemic is rapidly changing, and the picture was different two weeks ago from what it was four weeks ago,” White said.