Just a couple weeks ago, colleges and universities were preparing to resume mostly normal campus operations for the fall semester, tearing down Plexiglas and ripping coverings off public drinking fountains.
That momentum has slowed as unvaccinated pockets of people and the more contagious and dangerous delta variant fuel the pandemic, prompting all the higher education schools in Duluth to reinstate their mask requirements.
“It’s really wild how things can change so drastically in the span of a couple of weeks,” said Laura Johnson, the College of St. Scholastica’s associate director of communications. “It speaks to how pernicious this virus is.”
Chris Stevens, the facilities operations manager for the University of Minnesota Duluth, said because of the delta variant, his team has slowed down on removing personal protective equipment on campus, and has even reinstalled some.
As of now, though, little else has changed in terms of how colleges and universities are preparing for a fall semester with more on-campus activity.
“We are optimistic that the campus will be vibrant with all those traditional activities of college life this fall,” said Jordan Milan, the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s communications director and assistant to the chancellor. “That said, of course, we are tuned into the challenges posed by the delta variant and staying in close contact with state and local health officials.”
Schools like St. Scholastica, UMD and Lake Superior College, all in Duluth, are also still planning for a full return to campus.
Courses that were held in person before the pandemic will return to that form at UW-Superior, LSC and St. Scholastica. At UMD, 88% of courses will be held in-person or in a hybrid format, or a mix of in-person and online learning. In the spring, only 27% of courses at UMD were held in an in-person or hybrid format.
Lisa Erwin, dean of students and vice chancellor of student life at UMD, anticipates the blended-class format will continue to be used post-pandemic.
“Curriculum lends itself to it,” Erwin said. “It provides the instructor more options in terms of how to achieve the learning outcomes.”
In anticipation of much more traffic on campus this fall, the maintenance team at UMD is boosting its air filtration by supplementing some of the classrooms in older buildings with portable air filters, maintenance manager John Sawyer said.
They've also been upgrading their air-filtration system with more efficient filters, which remove more air particulates. After UMD put in a large order for the in-demand high-efficiency filters in 2020, they finally received them in July.
"This will be a process for us," Sawyer said. "It'll take some time before we get the whole campus. There's hundreds of these units on campus and thousands and thousands of filters."
Campuses not requiring vaccines
None of the colleges and universities in the Twin Ports have plans to require their campus communities to be vaccinated against COVID-19, though it’s an ongoing conversation for most. It’s a decision that wasn’t made locally, but at the system level for schools like UMD, UW-Superior and LSC, which all operate within a statewide system.
The only schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin that have declared vaccines mandatory are private colleges, four each in both states, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Johnson said St. Scholastica put a lot of thought into the decision not to require vaccinations, but said it could change further into the school year. The private Catholic college has decided to start increasing vaccine coverage on its campus through education, an incentive campaign and on-campus vaccine clinics.
“Will that be enough? We’ll have to wait and see. We feel good about where we are right now,” Johnson said. “I think how we change hearts and change minds is by messaging that this is for our greater community, this is for everybody.”
Daniel Fanning, LSC’s vice president of institutional advancement and external relations, said that less vaccine access in other parts of the state was part of the rationale behind the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s decision.
“We feel fortunate that we have such a proactive county and proactive partners — St. Luke’s, Essentia and elsewhere,” Fanning said. “We know we have incredible access. We have partners willing to come to our campus and deliver these vaccinations for us. We know not every campus has that. Because of that we want to lead the charge and make sure our students know that.”
Individual Minnesota State campuses are not able to mandate vaccines, but academic programs can, Fanning said. Most of LSC’s health care programs require students to be vaccinated.
At least 70% of LSC’s campus community was vaccinated as of midsummer, Fanning said. That data was collected by people confidentially volunteering their status. It’s unclear whether that percentage will drop once the fall semester starts and a new group of students start on campus.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced in June the system would not mandate vaccines.
“Public health experts note that a 100% vaccination rate is not possible in any situation and the most effective strategy is access and information” Gabel wrote in a letter to the campuses.
Asked if there’s potential for that decision to change, Erwin said other options are possible and conversations on the topic are ongoing at the system level, as are discussions about whether U of M schools will ask students and employees to confidentially share their vaccine status.
UW System President Tommy Thompson believes vaccine incentives are a better option than a mandate, according to the system’s media relations director, Mark Pitsch.
“UW System continues to monitor local, state and federal health guidance, and will make decisions accordingly,” Pitsch said.
Thompson recently announced an incentive campaign for students that would award 70 vaccinated students in the system, excluding UW-Madison, with a $7,000 tuition award. If a university's student population reaches 70% vaccinated, those on that campus who proved they’re vaccinated become eligible for the award.
St. Scholastica is choosing another route. Instead of incentivizing, they want to thank every vaccinated student who shares their status by awarding them a small monetary gift of campus credit they can use toward tuition or other expenses.
Since UMD is not currently collecting vaccine status information, Erwin said they're incentivizing through messaging.
"We've got a multifaceted approach," Erwin said. "We'll use printed posters, T-shirts, digital media on campus, social media on campus. We'll try to get the word out a lot of different ways."
Campus vaccine, test offerings
Leaders at St. Scholastica, UMD and LSC all said they plan to hold on-campus vaccine clinics early in the semester.
St. Louis County Public Health will offer a couple of on-campus clinics for St. Scholastica students starting next week. The college is also trying to get Walmart to host a mobile clinic on campus.
LSC has the county scheduled to offer a few different clinics during the first week of classes.
"There's obviously still a small pocket that hasn't been vaccinated, but we're actually pretty pleased with the overall vaccination rates on our campus, both with our employees and students, based on what they tell us," Fanning said.
UW-Superior will still be housing the community vaccine clinic this fall, Milan said, it'll just be moving from the Wessman Arena to a room in the Yellowjacket Union on Aug. 17.
The Superior campus plans to continue hosting the community COVID-19 testing site in the Marcovich Wellness Center.
UMD and St. Scholastica will continue to offer COVID-19 tests to students on campus.