On Thursday, March 12 at 11:30 a.m. all Montana University System (MUS) students and faculty received an email stating that all classes will be transitioned online starting March 23 (the Monday after spring break) until further notice. The move follows suit with a growing number of universities across the U.S. react to COVID-19.

In response to the announcement, the Exponent reached out to University Communications for comment. Tracy Ellig, Vice President of University Communications, responded and granted the Exponent a brief interview to break down the developing situation.

The following contains the most important questions and information gained from the interview:

When did MSU faculty and staff here about the decision? Did they know anything before students received the email canceling in-person classes?

“Because there is an awful lot going on in regards to COVID-19. All of us are not in every single meeting. To my knowledge the commissioner’s office developed this plan and was drafting it last night [Wednesday, March 11]. As the vice president of communications, the first I heard of it was this morning…All students, faculty and staff received the commissioner’s letter at exactly the same time… There is a very good reason for that. We are going to moving toward more simultaneous communications because what he have seen is that when we segment communications.When you segment communication you have one group who does know and one who doesn’t and that can cause intense confusion immediately…”

Obviously this will be tough for professors. How are faculty responding to the announcement?

“We absolutely understand that we are asking a lot of faculty, a lot. We have provided a comprehensive website of resources and advice and also made them aware of the centers for faculty excellence as well as academic technology and outreach center will all be working with them to get this thing off the ground. Is it a big lift? It is a big lift. I think we are asking their patience, their understanding and their cooperation because we are definitely in an unprecedented situation. Not only as a nation, as a world.”

As students, what can we do to help with the transition?

One thing that is really important is that students really pay close attention to their email, so that when faculty members start communicating with them that they’re on top of those emails. And also that students are really using those online tools like D2L and Brightspace. Students be watching for those communications and reading them so if they have any questions they bring them up early and we can help faculty answer those.”

The decision was made to keep facilities and residence halls open while classes are moving all to online. How was this decision come to and why?

One reason for going to online instruction is that attending classes is really not optional. If we don’t go online, we are forcing you to come to campus and be in class. We do not want people to be in that situation…There’s no requirement that students have to return to the residence halls, or frankly, even to Bozeman. If they want to take advantage of this opportunity to do online [classes] at home that is going to be available to them. We are leaving the residence halls and dining halls open because we understand that for some students during the academic year that is where they live, and we don’t want to foreclose that option…We are not a super-rich private university. We are a public university that has its doors open to all students. We understand that coming to school is an economic stretch and we want them [students] to have a place to live and place to eat when they come back from spring break, but it is voluntary. If they don’t want to come back, they don’t have to.”

In the email sent out to students, it stated classes will be online until further notice. Is it possible that in-person classes will resume before the end of the semester?

“That would really depend on what is going to be the trend in terms of COVID-19. There is something called the peak. That is what healthcare and public health professionals call when the virus hits its maximum number of cases and then starts to decline. To the best of our knowledge, from information from the Centers for Disease Control the peak may not hit until mid-May. So, I think that we will evaluate that going forward, but the data and sort of what is coming out of the Centers for Disease Control, there is a pretty strong likelihood that the number of cases in the United States will continue to increase.”

How does the university plan to handle in-person lab courses, like chemistry and physics moving forward?

We are definitely having discussions about that issue. That is what we are going to move through and try and solve over the next 10 days…Let’s do some self-reflection [referring to MSU faculty] and ask ourselves what is the most important thing that we want students to learn and understand, and is there a way for them to learn that without hands-on laboratory experience…We don’t have a crystal clear answer right now.”

Is there anything else you would like us to cover during this interview?

There is one question that we have gotten a lot. We have gotten a lot of questions from parents and families that are planning trips over spring break. Some of those trips are international, and some of those trips are domestic. [If the destination becomes a Level 3 travel restriction] their becomes this necessity that they do a 14-day quarantine… Even before we made the decision to go fully online, we were absolutely committed to making sure students could compete their coursework, even under the situation of a 14-day quarantine.

During the interview, Ellig also added that the university is urging everybody to use our COVID-19 webpage for the most recent updates.

The Exponent plans to continue to maintain contact with University Communications and publish updates and stories as we receive them.

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