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State University System Trustees Approve Fall Campus Reopening Plans

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Dan Tuohy | NHPR

The Board of Trustees of the University System of New Hampshire approved reopening plans for UNH, Keene State and Plymouth State on Tuesday. 

Those plans include on-campus and in-person instruction for students. The university system is also offering online options for students who do not want to return to campus. 

“I think we know we’re taking a real risk, but a managed risk,” said Donald Birx, president of Plymouth State University. “I think we’ve minimized that risk as much as possible. I think there’s a lot of rationale and reasons to hold in-person classes.” 

The Board of Trustees has met twelve times throughout the summer to discuss re-opening plans in detail, and heard summaries from each of the three campus presidents about those plans on Tuesday. 

Those plans include testing students before they arrive back on campus, and then several times a semester; contact tracing; and communication with students about expectations around wearing masks and social distancing. 

Todd Black, one of the trustees, said he was confident in the schools’ plans for testing, contact tracing and remote learning capabilities. 

“I don't want anyone to think we're going to prevent any COVID-related items from occurring, but do we have the layers of risk management where we can respond effectively to that?” he said. 

But Black and other trustees expressed concerns about how student behavior and compliance with social distancing and mask wearing will play out.  

“Our plan works as long as people are really careful about their behavior,” Birx said.

Melinda Treadwell, president of Keene State College, said she's heard from students that they want to do their part to keep the community safe. Keene State is requiring mask wearing in public spaces on campus and will have a six-foot spacing rule in classrooms. 

"I think we know we're taking a real risk, but a managed risk." - PSU President Donald Birx

Students have been asked to sign an informed consent agreement before their arrival on campus. The  agreement includes a list of policies and protocols students will need to follow if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. By signing, students are saying they assume the risks associated with being at UNH, including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Students are required to sign the agreement before arriving on campus. If they don’t agree, they can take classes remotely. 

College presidents said that a majority of students had signed the agreement, with most saying they would be back on campus in the fall. 

But Nicole Demas, a rising second year law student at UNH’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, says she doesn’t have that much of a choice. For the moment, she plans on taking classes remotely. 

“If I were to take a year off at this moment, it would really interrupt my law school education,” she said. “I don’t think I could just turn around in the middle of a jobs crisis and get a job for a year until I feel comfortable returning to campus. I don’t think all the students have that choice.” 

Only one trustee, Chris Pope, voted against approving reopening plans. 

“By bringing a full complement of students and faculty back to campus, are we willing to take the chance that someone will die or that we spread the disease to a host community or to the hundreds of communities our students will return home to at Thanksgiving?” he said. 

Pope said he’s also concerned about having to rely on others for key parts of the reopening plan: sources for COVID-19 testing materials, how well New Hampshire’s Department of Public Health could keep up with a potential surge in demand for contact tracing, and, echoing other trustees concerns, how well people would follow social distancing rules. 

Jeremiah Duncan, a professor at Plymouth State University and the president of the Plymouth State University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he had hoped that the Board of Trustees would have voted against the reopening plans. 

“People are pretty nervous and anxious, and have a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. 

According to a survey by a Plymouth State University taskforce, about 77 percent of 349 faculty, operating staff and other staff were either not comfortable or unsure about returning to campus this fall. 

“I think we risk having a major outbreak that's not just within our university, but is within the surrounding community as a result of so many people coming back to our area from, you know, a fairly broad region,” Duncan said. 

Duncan says that so far, all professors that have requested to teach online have been approved to do so, but that many professors still have questions about safety and enforcement of rules around social distancing and mask wearing. 

Daniela is an editor in NHPR's newsroom. She leads NHPR's Spanish language news initiative, ¿Qué Hay de Nuevo, New Hampshire? and the station's climate change reporting project, By Degrees. You can email her at dallee@nhpr.org.

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