GRAND FORKS — The leader of the North Dakota University System is imploring parents and students to follow local media reports about the ongoing pandemic and says all indications show that it will be safe for students to return to campus this fall.

“We need parents and students to understand that the major strategy that all the universities in the country are pursuing is the de-densification of higher-ed,” NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott said during a meeting this week with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board. “We are blessed to be the most rural state in America. . . . We have wonderful open campuses. We have a governor that had great success on testing. . . . If there’s a place they can safely go back to school, it’s North Dakota.”

Hagerott said there is a lot of misinformation nationally about a fall return to campuses. Additionally, he says major national news outlets like The New York Times and others are mostly focused on how schools on the coasts will reopen. Some schools, like New York University, will not be returning to campus in the fall, but Hagerott indicated that’s because it has a high student population density. That's not necessarily the case in North Dakota, he said.

North Dakota campuses are well-positioned, with moderately managed risk, to bring students back this fall, he said.

Hagerott said the campuses will have “flex hybrid” classrooms, which means students will have the ability to attend classes in person, but if someone gets sick and is quarantined, that student can still attend and participate in class virtually.

If another peak in COVID-19 cases occurs, the campuses will be able to pivot to online courses. Additionally, the system and individual schools are working toward plans for testing and other safety measures for the fall semester. The system has also formed a “smart restart” task force to discuss what the best course of action will be from a system level and for each campus size.

“People should come with confidence in August to know we have adaptive strategies to give them the education they need,” Hagerott said.

Campuses across the system closed in mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 11,000 courses across the university system were moved entirely online in a very short amount of time. Most campuses saw success with the switch, although many leaders across the system indicated in the weeks after that students still missed the in-person aspects of classes.

“I'm a big believer in online education, but there are many students that that doesn't match for as well,” Mayville State University President Brian Van Horn said in May. “I think by giving students a choice of attending a campus or attending online, you have the best of both worlds."

Other regional systems, like the University of Minnesota system and the South Dakota higher-ed system, also are working to bring students back this fall, with some adjustments.

Nick Hacker, chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, said there was a worry, especially initially, that the pandemic could cause enrollment to drop by as much as 20% in the fall. However, early applications look fairly positive across the university system.

“Seemingly . . . enrollment should be OK,” Hacker said.