DURHAM — University of New Hampshire campuses will reopen to students starting Aug. 10, doing so with a number of changes and restrictions university officials say will ensure safety during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Precautionary changes include: reducing residence hall capacity by an estimated 20%, eliminating triple and quad rooms in the process; reserving two dorms for quarantine housing; mandatory facemasks; a stay-at-home policy for anyone who is ill; reducing dining hall capacity and new to-go meal options; a mixture of in-person and online courses, plus various course changes to comply with social distancing recommendations; remote learning approval processes for vulnerable students; and more.
The changes will also include new penalties for students who don’t comply with UNH’s safety guidelines, according to the information UNH President Jim Dean shared Monday in an email to students and on a university webpage titled “Roadmap to an On-Campus Experience.”
“We are preparing to welcome students back to our campuses in Durham, Manchester and Concord for a COVID-19-ready fall semester,” Dean wrote. “Informed by the latest science, public health guidance and ideas from our university community, UNH is developing a flexible, in-person fall 2020 experience designed to keep our community safe, ensure access and quality for our students, and move our community forward. Should health conditions change, we are prepared to pivot in support of the health and well-being of our community.”
Dean couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. UNH Provost Wayne Jones was reached, but not before deadline for this report.
The university’s reopening roadmap was developed by 13 teams of faculty, staff and students who used “key internal and external metrics from the federal and state levels” to guide their recommendations, according to a statement by Jones.
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The university’s roadmap states safety supplies, sanitation stations and testing will be available on campus and that the university will clean and disinfect classrooms, restrooms and “other high-touch surfaces” more frequently.
Contact tracing will be performed in collaboration with state health officials, according to the roadmap. It states UNH’s goal is to identify and isolate infected individuals within 24 hours of a positive test.
The roadmap indicates students will be allowed back into dorms during an expanded three-week move-in period that will start Aug. 10.
Classes will begin at UNH’s law school in Concord on Aug. 24 and at the Durham and Manchester campuses on Aug. 31. Pending faculty senate approval, the university has proposed canceling fall holidays and closing campus on Thanksgiving, after which students would complete the final 10 days of the semester and final exams remotely.
Dean said last week the university expects a decrease in freshmen enrollment this fall, and that enrollment is a significant part of why projections indicate UNH could face a deficit of up to $30 million in the coming fiscal year.
The university’s roadmap doesn’t state whether decreases in on-campus student population or other factors are playing a role in UNH’s ability to limit the occupancy of its dorms, nor how UNH will administer the spaces within its reduced-capacity dorms.
Prior to the pandemic, UNH only guaranteed housing to all first-year students.
The university’s webpage doesn’t indicate which two dorms will be reserved for quarantine housing.
In addition to the housing changes and a requirement everyone wear facemasks while in class, at work and in campus common areas, one of UNH’s biggest anticipated changes due to the pandemic includes the impact on courses.
The university will expand each day’s instructional hours to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., lengthening the day to allow for courses to be split into multiple sections or moved into larger rooms to comply with social distancing recommendations, according to UNH’s COVID-19 FAQ page.
The FAQs indicate some courses may also “limit the number of students present in person on a rotating basis” to reduce the number of students on campus and in one space at any given time.
It’s unclear how UNH will provide a mixture of in-person and online courses, and the FAQs indicate it won’t be possible with every course.
The FAQs also indicate remote course exceptions for vulnerable populations will be “Subject to approval,” though it doesn’t outline what criteria will be used to determine which students will be eligible.
The roadmap also indicates the university is “working to preserve the traditional campus experience to the greatest extent possible, with the necessary safety protocols and guidelines in place that protect students, faculty and staff.” It will do this, according to the roadmap, by requiring prescheduling for various campus activities and events that “will scale based on health and safety conditions.”
“The goal is to provide the highest quality educational and campus experiences while protecting the health and safety of our community,” Jones wrote in the letter posted to UNH’s website.
It’s unclear how UNH will enforce compliance with the various changes, beyond stating the university’s Student Rights, Rules and Responsibilities Handbook is being updated to reflect that “living and learning on campus is a right and a privilege that will be lost for students that don’t adhere to these guidelines.”
Molly Campbell, the president of the university’s lecturers union, said lecturers have concerns about the overall safety of some of the provisions and the responsibilities they will add for university employees.
However, she said they also “have empathy with the administration because they have to consider so many competing concerns.”
“UNH’s plan can’t be said to be flawless, but this is an extraordinary set of challenges,” Campbell wrote in a text. “UNH’s plan is aligned with, and even leading what other colleges nationally are developing for solutions, however all of these plans rely on the foundational assumption that the college environment can be made safe, which will require 100% commitment and participation by the entire community.”
Jim Farrell, a professor of rhetoric in the university’s communications department, said faculty members are also concerned about safety. He estimated returning students and staff to campus will result in 1,900-2,000 people in relatively close proximity to each other, which could be challenging in buildings with narrow corridors like Murkland Hall where personal space is often limited.
Like the lecturers, Farrell said faculty members also understand UNH is trying to put together a puzzle “knowing they don’t have all the pieces yet.”
“I don’t want to come off like I’m trying to be 100% critical of the administration,” said Farrell. “I think they have a terribly difficult job to do and an amazingly complex puzzle to figure out. I just don’t see a solution that makes most faculty, or a significant portion of the faculty, feel comfortable or safe going back into a classroom with potentially 20 or 30 vectors of disease.”
Farrell said he looks forward to receiving more detailed information in the coming weeks and that he hopes the university will authorize remote learning for any employees and students at risk or uncomfortable returning in person this fall.
“Again, they’re doing the best they can — I just don’t think it’s possible to do what they aspire to do,” he said. “You’re not going to get all of the students following the guidelines all the time. Why that matters is it only takes one mistake (to cause an outbreak).”