Editor's note: this story will be updated on an ongoing basis as more information becomes available.
As a potential hub for the highly contagious coronavirus, the University of Minnesota is prepping for how to react. The University has canceled in-person instruction and closed most University buildings and operations at least through spring semester — and likely longer.
Many employees have been advised not to return to campus, if possible, and the University has enacted policies allowing workers to continue to receive pay despite losing their jobs due to closures.
While some dorms and dining halls are still open, the University has recommended that students return home if possible. Many international students are left scrambling, unsure if going home or staying at the University is the safest option.
On March 24, the University announced that it would give students who moved out of their dorms a flat reimbursement of $1,200 for housing and meal plan fees. After receiving pushback from the community, the University passed a 100% refund for housing, meal plan, parking, recreation and safety fees from March 28 until the end of the semester. Those refunds amount to a more than $27 million loss for the University.
The University announced on March 20 that it would allow students to switch their classes to pass/fail grading until April 15, also after receiving requests from students.
Students studying abroad were asked to return home in the wake of major program cancellations by March 20. The University released a policy for study abroad refunds on Thursday, March 12. The University will provide up to $500 in flight change fees.
President Joan Gabel established a committee that will “manage the University’s preparation and response to COVID-19,” according to a University-wide statement sent March 7. The committee will determine necessary policy changes and practices at the University relating to the virus, as well as identify new areas of concern, among other tasks.
Gabel addressed the Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday, March 10 to further discuss the University's preparation for the virus.
All undergraduate applicants currently being reviewed in the regular decision pool will receive decisions by the regular March 31 deadline, per University spokesperson Lacey Nygard. It should be noted that, as the University of Minnesota does practice rolling admissions, many students already have their admission decisions.
The World Health Organization announced Wednesday, March 11 that the outbreak is considered a pandemic.
Students will be refunded 50% of student service fees and 100% refund of meal plans, housing, parking, and recreation and safety fees after March 16.
The University's refund plan initially covered students after March 28 — the day Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide stay-at-home order — but the start date was moved back at a April 7 regents meeting following push-back from students and student government.
Prior to the April 7 vote, the "common" student was projected to receive about $2,364 in refunds, according to University officials at a Board of Regents meeting on April 3.
The move to refund 100% of housing and meal plan fees, among others, until the end of the semester follows backlash from the University community over an earlier plan to refund a flat $1,200.
The new refund calculations, which will differ by student, were made using the “most common” meal plan, housing scenario, parking and other miscellaneous fees selected by students. Refunds will appear in student accounts sometime in April.
Students will also receive a 50% refund of student services fees, which students pay to support University services like the Recreation and Wellness Center. Money will not be rescinded from student groups, which also rely on funding from student services fees.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel authorized an emergency paid leave assistance policy for eligible University employees, including students, who are unable to work in-person or remotely. Community members were able to begin using the policy on March 23.
The policy allows up to 80 hours of paid leave for all eligible workers. This benefit is only available for employees who are not able to work in-person or remotely because of reasons associated with COVID-19, which include personal illness, a need to isolate due to exposure or necessary child care due to unavailability or facility closures.
Research slowed, discontinued
Only animal and plant research deemed "critical" by the University will continue, and no new studies will begin unless they directly relate to COVID-19.
Researchers have been advised to cease animal breeding and consider euthanasia if other alternatives are not viable.
Other researchers, including graduate students, are being asked to follow CDC guidelines to stay safe during the pandemic. Those recommendations suggest universities limit, postpone or adapt research-related activities, including study recruitment or participation and access to a lab.
The Big Ten Conference announced that all non-conference and conference competitions through the academic year has also been canceled, putting an end to every winter sport still playing and every spring sport at the University of Minnesota.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were also postponed until 2021, sidelining prospective Gopher Olympians for a year.
University cancels in-person instruction, postpones commencement
The University announced on March 16 that it will cancel in-person instruction until at least the end of spring semester.
The University asks that students not return to campus if they have a safe alternative. The University will ensure there is sufficient space in residence halls, although housing may be consolidated. "None of us can predict how long the present situation may last and if you remain on campus you might be here for some time with very limited services," according to the announcement.
Many services have been cut down with this announcement. Libraries will be closed and all recreational and wellness services — aside from mental health programming — will be suspended. Graduation ceremonies scheduled for May, which were initially canceled, have been postponed.
“This community has a strong and collaborative network that will serve us well should we need to mobilize a large-scale online instruction effort,” according to a statement from Executive Vice President and Provost Karen Hanson.
The University also acknowledges "the uncertainty that this virus is inserting into planning for the fall," according to the statement.
Study abroad programs canceled, University travel restricted
On March 15, the University announced that it canceled all of its study abroad programs and is required all students to return to the United States by March 20.
The University previously suspended programs in China, South Korea and Italy and asked students who are in Europe, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, to return home in the wake of major study abroad cancelations by March 20. On March 17, it extended the suspension to include summer programs starting before July 1.
The University released a policy for study abroad refunds on Thursday, March 12.
University suspended all University-funded nonessential travel for University community members beginning Monday, March 16.
“We don't have any reason to believe that it has a fundamental difference on prevention,” Gabel said. “But the more we can delay its arrival here by limiting travel, we want to be contributors to that.”
Two students were in self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus in Europe, but been cleared after not showing symptoms.
The University is also encouraging those arriving back from South Korea, Italy, China or Iran to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the U.S.
Art History professor Steven Ostrow’s honors seminar was scheduled to spend spring break in Rome studying Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The trip was canceled after the Centers for Disease Control issued a level three travel notice for Italy, advising travelers to avoid all nonessential trips to the country.
"It's a terrible disappointment for [the students] especially because it was a special opportunity,” Ostrow said. “I had been able to obtain special permissions to see things that people would never get to see and access to works that are not in the public domain."
Had they gone on the trip, the class would only have met a couple more times upon returning to campus to finish the course material, Ostrow said. Because of the cancelation, they will continue meeting to make up lost hours.
For the students, the trip would have been a chance to experience Italy's culture and fall in love with the country, Ostrow said.
While programs in Spain haven’t been canceled due to the outbreak, second year student Grace Bingham, who is studying in Toledo for the semester, said in an email that students there are still feeling the impacts. She said every pharmacy sells medical masks and the start of tourist season is making her nervous.
Her trip to Italy for spring break was canceled after peers had already spent hundreds of dollars on flights, she said in the email.
“We're all trying to keep in good spirits, but it's obvious that everyone is feeling at least a little nervous and frustrated,” she said in the email.