May 7, 2020: Message from the President: Looking Ahead


University of Montana. Office of the President. Picture of Seth Bodnar

Dear UM Family,

As the spring semester comes to a close, I know many of you are thinking first about a successful finish to this term, but also are wondering about fall. As you may have seen, Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian shared on May 1 that the entire Montana University System is planning for a return to in-person instruction for the fall semester. We are looking forward to having our UM Family reunited here on campus, and I write today to share an update about the work we’re doing to prepare to welcome you back.

In addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working hard to navigate concerns for the health and safety of our UM family, while recognizing the critical importance of enabling our students to continue to learn and achieve their goals. As we plan for a return to in-person instruction, these imperatives will continue to guide our efforts, and we will continue to work in close coordination with state and local officials.

Last month, to begin planning for the fall, we created a cross-sector, mission-based team (MBT) co-led by Adrea Lawrence, education dean; Kirk Lacy, vice provost; and Claudine Cellier, Provost Office director of operations. This group – comprising leaders from across all of campus – worked tirelessly over the past month to research possible scenarios and outline possible actions we should consider taking as a campus to prepare for the fall. Their thorough, thoughtful analysis is largely completed, and we now are planning actions to implement based on the work of the MBT.

The mission-based team’s excellent work has resulted in four main categories of possible actions. Below is a broad overview of these, which gives you a sense of the steps that we are working on to prepare for fall semester on our beautiful campus. As we continue this work, we will remain closely coordinated with the MUS Healthy Fall Task Force recently established by Commissioner Christian.

A successful transition back to in-person teaching, learning and working will rely on these efforts; on our continued hard work, creativity and capacity to adapt; and on our collective commitment to our students’ success.

We will be ready.

Support Teaching and Learning for a Successful Return in Fall 2020

Over the course of the next few months, we will work to ensure that we adapt our in-person teaching and learning practices to protect the health and safety of all faculty, staff and students. This will require some creative and evidence-based changes in how we deliver in-person instruction, flexibility avoiding large gatherings and allowing for online or remote access where necessary. Our student success, academic affairs and faculty leaders will put in place new resources to support our faculty and students and to ensure we provide flexibility while maintaining quality and adhering to health and safety guidelines.


Establish Mitigation, Testing, Tracing and Isolation/Quarantine Plans

A return to in-person teaching, learning and working will require that we take effective and comprehensive steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we will work to establish a testing protocol to monitor and understand the prevalence of COVID-19. We also will develop practices to enable effective contact tracing when positive cases occur, and we will develop plans to safely quarantine/isolate individuals when necessary. To lead our efforts in these four key areas – mitigation, testing, tracing and isolation/quarantine – we have established a UM Health Advisory Committee, co-led by Reed Humphrey, College of Health dean, and Paula Short, Strategic Communications associate vice president. This group includes faculty members from our School of Public and Community Health Sciences, other medical experts on campus and operational leaders from across campus.


We will implement recommended guidance focused on limiting the spread of coronavirus through such means as physical distancing, recommending use of masks, facilitating effective distancing measures and modifications to workspaces as appropriate. One example is installation of Plexiglas panels at close-contact student service interfaces. We will continue to adapt our custodial routines as new guidance and recommendations emerge. We will consult guidance from the CDC, OSHA and others in making data-informed decisions about implementing those actions. This work also will include recommendations for on-campus housing, dining, computer labs, recreational facilities, events and other areas with the potential for high density or congregations of people. Additionally, we will launch education and awareness campaigns about these campus-sponsored measures and about the personal measures each of us can take.


Working with public health and medical professionals, we will explore a testing plan to help us monitor and understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community. Curry Health Center will be a key leader in this area, and as new testing technology emerges, we anticipate testing capacity – both in availability of supplies and the lab response – will continue to improve.


Our ability to resume in-person working and learning will rely on our ability to effectively minimize the spread of coronavirus in the event of a positive, lab-confirmed case. Using technology, we will support the work of the Missoula City-County Health, which has the responsibility for contact tracing.


We are making plans to isolate confirmed cases of coronavirus and effectively quarantine those at risk of exposure due to close contact with a confirmed case. This is especially true for those in campus housing, but the University may be able to assist off-campus students if staying at home in a communal environment is not possible. We are looking at our existing options within UM Housing, as well as at strategic partnerships with Missoula County and other entities for addressing emergent temporary sheltering options for the purpose of quarantine or isolation.

Explore Innovative Ideas for Academic Terms and Interdisciplinary Learning

As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And as our mission-based team assessed how we can best meet our students’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, they also surfaced some innovative ideas for how we might better serve our community’s need in the future. One example is the group’s recommendation to structure our academic terms as seven- or eight-week blocks that run year-around (three semesters with two blocks each). The team also identified promising ideas around new interdisciplinary tracks and flexible certificates and micro-credentials. These are ideas that we will explore more fully with the University Design Team over the next several months.

Develop New Student Communication Strategies

And of course, our return to campus for the fall will require a robust communication campaign that demonstrates for students, employees, parents and other stakeholders how we will provide a quality and engaging learning and working environment that minimizes risk. Vice President Cathy Cole and her team are already hard at work on these communication efforts.

I’m sharing this level of detail because I want you to have confidence that we already are building the foundation for a successful return to campus. The design work we’ll do around every other aspect of the University – from classes and labs to field trips and athletic events – will be predicated on our careful work to address mitigation, testing, tracing and isolation/quarantine.

As we continue into summer, I encourage you to stay connected to our work in these areas by visiting the University’s coronavirus webpage. We will continue to post all of our information and communications on this page and will link to and from other areas of the website as well. It will be important check your email periodically to receive updates on our planning and progress.

We will be prepared to welcome you back and eager to see and feel the heartbeat of UM – our students, faculty and staff – return to campus.


Office of the President
University of Montana - 32 Campus Drive
Missoula, Montana 59812 | 406-243-2311 |

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