GRAND FORKS — With just more than a week before University of North Dakota students return to campus, university administrators are leaning on lessons learned during the height of the pandemic to safely start the fall semester. Vaccines, a tool not available last year, can make all the difference, they say.

Protocols — including Plexiglas barriers in classrooms, hand sanitizing stations and testing availability — will continue to be commonplace on campus. Administrators say the university will continue following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines about mask wearing, and are strongly encouraging students to wear them to protect themselves and others. Mask guidelines could have more teeth though, as faculty members have the authority to require them in class. Classes are set to begin Monday, Aug. 23.

The health and safety of those on campus ultimately falls on vaccinations, and the number of people who receive them, administrators say.

“The most important thing, and I'll emphasize this over and over again, the most important way that somebody can protect themselves and others is to get vaccinated,” said UND President Andy Armacost. “We will continue to strongly encourage students, faculty and staff members to receive the vaccine, because that is probably the way to minimize the risk to individuals and campus.”

Andrew Armacost, in 2020. (UND photo)
Andrew Armacost, in 2020. (UND photo)

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Unvaccinated students can receive the necessary immunization through UND Student Health Services. They can make appointments through the student online health portal, or by calling 701-777-4500. Faculty and staff can call 701-777-4500.

Administrators say it is better for students to get the first of the required two doses even before arriving on campus. They can then get their second dose locally.

Universities in the NDUS system can encourage vaccines for coronavirus, but cannot not require them under state law.

In August 2020, before vaccines were available, UND saw a spike in cases of the coronavirus and administrators are hoping to avoid a repeat of that increase. Quarantine and isolation protocols that began then will continue in the fall if needed. Students that either test positive or have been identified as a close contact can stay at hotels off campus.

Armacost said updated CDC guidance on quarantining can act as an incentive to get vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 do not need to quarantine as long as they are not showing symptoms.

“The good news is CDC guidelines recognize that vaccinations have power, and that the quarantine expectations are different for those who are vaccinated from those who aren't,” Armacost said.

Armacost said some public health students are taking part in a national campaign, started at Cornell University, that makes use of social media to encourage students to get vaccinated.

Michael Dulitz, opioid response coordinator for Grand Forks Public Health and COVID-19 data analyst, said it is likely coronavirus case activity will increase with the return of UND students. People in that age group generally tend to have lower rates of vaccination, he said, though he is hoping any increase will be a “blip along the way.”

“It'll be a test for the community,” Dulitz said.

Faculty members at UND have the option to require students to wear masks while in class, though Meloney Linder, vice president of marketing and communications at UND, said she doesn’t know how many professors will do so, given that they were notified of this authority just last week. People in supervisory positions have the same authority. Everyone on campus is being encouraged to carry a mask with them at all times, to respond to a mask requirement.

The number of incoming students at UND has increased, Linder said, and deposits for on-campus housing have increased by 17%, compared with the beginning of the fall semester in 2019. That doesn’t necessarily mean UND will have an overall higher number of students, Linder cautioned. Final enrollment data won’t be released until late September.

"Enrollments are looking strong," Linder said. "When you compare it to pre-pandemic, we are still looking very strong from that point to this point, so all indicators are good."