Message from the Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton T. Christian
As of this writing, Montana is fortunate to not yet have a confirmed case of COVID-19. However, with the virus confirmed in 35 states this morning, it’s reasonable to assume that could change at any time.
The Montana University System began preparing for this possibility in January, when news of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, began to raise concern. At that time, OCHE convened the MUS Intercampus Coronavirus Response Team consisting of medical experts, administrators, student affairs officers and communications staff to monitor the situation and assess preparedness across the system. The team has held weekly conference calls with state officials from the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services and those check-ins will likely become more frequent as necessary.
As the situation evolves, the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff will continue to be our highest priority. Our campuses already have robust emergency response plans in place, including pandemic response protocols. The team has been working diligently in recent weeks to align these plans with the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.
An area of early emphasis has been travel. College campuses are dynamic environments with students, faculty, staff and community members coming and going from around the country and the world, demanding our close attention. MUS-sponsored and affiliated travel to China was suspended January 31. Travel is now suspended to any country or region with a Level 4 Travel Advisory from the U.S. Department of State. MUS-sponsored or-affiliated travel to countries or areas with a Level 2 Travel Advisory or higher because of coronavirus (from either the U.S. Department of State or the CDC) is being evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and we continue to assess our travel policies on a daily basis.
State and local health officials advise that the risk to the general public in our state remains low and, as such, the Montana University System is continuing classes and other operations as usual. However, given the fast-changing nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, we're asking students and faculty to prepare for possible disruptions. For example, our campuses are providing faculty with resources and planning support that will help them convert their courses to online delivery, if necessary.
If, or more likely when, COVID-19 arrives in Montana, we may have to make additional decisions about travel restrictions, event cancellation and other adjustments to campus schedules. These decisions will be made on a campus-by-campus basis in close coordination with my office as well as local and state health officials who will assess risk factors to the surrounding community.
Our campuses are also prepared to coordinate closely with our K-12 partners in the event of school closures, which could create childcare challenges. We have asked faculty to be prepared to work with students by offering makeup exams, alternate assignments or alternate weighting of missed work.
Meanwhile, we’re sharing information our students, faculty and staff need to address potential hazards, such as exposure during spring break travel and new cybersecurity threats as opportunists take advantage of fear and panic spawned by the outbreak.
Uncertainty sowed by the outbreak also can take a toll on mental health, especially for those who have friends and family in an outbreak area. If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, please don’t hesitate to seek help from your campus clinic or another provider. And because uncertain times tend to breed misinformation, it's more important than ever to make sure you’re getting your news from reliable sources. Our Montana University System COVID-19 page has helpful links, including an FAQ that addresses a range of questions related to university system prevention and response – from academics to travel to what to expect if there is a confirmed case in Montana.
I’d like to share one more important note. As UM President Seth Bodnar wrote in a message to the Missoula campus community over the weekend, this is a time to treat one another with dignity and respect. We need to ensure that no member of our campus communities is subjected to xenophobic behavior due to the origin of the virus in Asia. Support your peers and colleagues, including those returning to campus after having been under quarantine.
Above all, we need your help. The best defense against any virus is good hand-washing and respiratory hygiene. Please help us keep our campuses safe: Cover your Cough, Stay Home if you’re sick and Wash Your Hands. As the CDC notes, everyone has a role to play in getting ready and staying healthy.