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‘Ultimately, the plan is just that — a plan’: A look at reopening plans across the Big Ten

University of Minnesota students and faculty have expressed concerns about the University’s current projections.
Illustration by Sarah Mai
Image by Sarah Mai

Illustration by Sarah Mai

The University of Minnesota seems to have a middle-of-the-road approach to reopening its doors when compared to other Big Ten schools that have released their own “sunrise” plans. 

During the Board of Regents meeting Friday, the regents passed President Joan Gabel’s reopening plan for the fall 2020 semester, which will start Sept. 8. The sunrise plan includes format and capacity accommodations and schedule adjustments. The semester will end before Thanksgiving break to discourage traveling University members from further spreading COVID-19. 

The University of Minnesota joins Michigan State in having a September opening date. Schools like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, The Ohio State University, Purdue State University, Indiana University and the University of Iowa plan to open in August.

Many schools with reopening plans have guidelines to “de-densify” campus — either similar to or stricter than Minnesota’s. Some campuses are also requiring the use of masks, while others either strongly recommend them for now (like Minnesota) or have not explicitly stated either way. 

University of Maryland, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Penn State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, University of Michigan and Rutgers University have yet to announce a concrete date of reopening or plan at all as of Sunday. Most are set to release updates in the coming weeks.  

Questioning safety for in-person classes

The University’s plan has already met vocal criticism for a lack of student input, numerous safety and health concerns and a measure of uncertainty surrounding the details of implementation. 

Lynn Blewett, a professor in the School of Public Health, said that while she trusts decisions made by informed administration members, she intends to make her own educated decisions and work to provide accommodations for students who are unable to be in the classroom. 

“I think [Gabel]’s made good decisions in the past, and I trust she’s getting expert advice,” Blewett said. “… If I’m given the classroom with enough space to spread out and I’m told to do in person, I will do it. If I’m not given an appropriate classroom, I just will refuse to do it. I mean, I just don’t think that’s right.”

She said the small, confined basement spaces where she usually teaches do not “feel like a safe place to be” during a pandemic.

Blewett also said planning was made difficult by “mixed messages” as the School of Public Health and University administration navigated reopening guidelines.

“I think it’s anxiety-provoking for faculty and for students,” she said. “Everybody wants the same objective: to get back in the classroom as soon as we can but also to be safe, especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

Students engage in planning

The University released a survey that garnered 145 responses, 86 of which were from students, regarding sentiment on reopening campus. Regents pointed to the survey while discussing reopening.

“That doesn’t seem like enough to actually give students a proper voice in the matter,” said Jack Sewpersaud, a second-year University student. 

Sewpersaud and fellow student Logan Hathaway circulated their own survey last week, which garnered 1,299 responses from students systemwide over less than a two-day period.

Of those who answered, more than 52%—about 682 students—agreed with the decision to reopen campus. Most students were comfortable with returning in the fall, especially if a vaccine is developed and widely available. 

Most students favored hybrid instruction, which includes a mix of in-person and online instruction. A wide majority of respondents also felt mask-wearing and social distancing should be mandatory and enforced by the University in all classrooms or public spaces on campus. 

More than 93% of students who answered said they were unaware of the University’s survey, with nearly 90% of respondents claiming they would have taken the survey had it been better communicated to them.

“When it comes to anything COVID-related, I like everyone else have more questions than answers,” said regent Mike Kenyanya in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “Ultimately, I find myself deferring to the experts on this one. And while this decision has been made at the University level, every student will have to make it for themselves as well.”

Kenyanya, like several other regents, stressed the flexibility of current plans. He hopes students can take classes even if they are not comfortable returning to campus.

“I know as time passes, we’ll have more answers,” he said. “Ultimately, the plan is just that — a plan. If things change drastically, so will the plan.” 

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