Montana State University is urging students to limit social interactions to reduce their chances of catching COVID-19 before they return home for winter break next week.
In a Nov. 10 letter from MSU Dean of Students Matthew Caires, the university outlined steps for a departure from campus before the fall semester ends the day before Thanksgiving.
“I urge you to consider this time period as we end our semester,” Caires wrote. “Limiting your social circle, staying home when you can and avoiding gatherings now can help reduce the risk of carrying the virus with you when you travel later.”
He reminded students of the new county-wide restrictions passed by the Gallatin City-County Board of Health on Nov. 6. The new rules limit social indoor and outdoor gatherings to 25 people or less, regardless of the ability to socially distance.
“We want to remind you that students who host or attend events where more than 25 people are present would be breaking the county rule, which is in turn a violation of MSU’s Code of Student Conduct,” he said.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced similar rules would apply to the entire state on Tuesday.
Michael Becker, MSU spokesman, said students would still be allowed to register for winter break housing at a rate of $24 per night. He said only around 200 students have registered to-date.
“We are in constant communication with our students, and they are cognizant of the potential to carry the virus with them when they travel,” Becker said in an email to the Chronicle.
Becker said free testing was still being offered to symptomatic students but due to the limited capacity for test processing across the state, asymptomatic tests are not available.
Mike Vasquez, the president of the Associated Students of Montana State University, said students on campus have been taking the last few weeks seriously. He said many students have said it would be hard to get COVID-19 now and have to postpone their trip home while they are in quarantine or isolation.
“People had their little gatherings (earlier) and even those are dropping off,” he said. “People want to get through the semester and get home.”
Vasquez, who said he’d be returning home to southern California over the break, said the end of the semester has been a bit rough on students, with many ready to get to the end.
“Going 15 weeks straight is a little tough on students,” he said.
Since MSU decided to end the semester early, before Thanksgiving break, it did not have its regular fall break.
Vasquez said it’s also been draining for a lot of students as COVID-19 cases rise on campus, in Bozeman and across the country.
In the university’s guide to leaving campus before break, it said students in quarantine and isolation housing are asked to stay on campus until their release dates. The university said all meals and services would continue to be provided during that time.
As of Friday, a total of 990 cases have been reported at MSU since Aug.1. Last week, the university reported 265 new cases, a 37% increase over last week.
As cases rise in the county and quarantine and isolation housing capacity is stretched on campus, MSU officials have said they are confident they will finish the semester with in-person learning.
In a press conference on Friday, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said, “There’s really significant questions about how they’ll manage to come back in the spring and in an environment that is probably going to be significantly more difficult than what we saw in August and September when we started classes.”
Despite the rising cases and the potential for them to increase over the winter, Becker said the university is planning to return to full in-person learning when the spring semester begins on Jan. 11.
He said the university is working closely with public health officials and plans to offer courses in person, online and a combination of the two.
“We have heard from students and from parents that they have a strong preference for in-person delivery of classes,” he said.
Becker said transmission appears to come from social settings, and MSU will continue its campus precautions in the spring including communicating with students on the need to limit social interactions.
“All of that being said, the Montana University System continues to evaluate circumstances, including how the rollout of the vaccine and other actions at a national level will impact the COVID-19 situation,” he said.
Vasquez said many of the students are hoping this spike will decrease in the next two months.
“There’s a hope that this is the peak and people are really taking things seriously right now,” he said. “We’re hoping this peak starts to fall off.
Despite the uncertainties and challenges of the last semester, he said the university staff, teachers and students have done a “really, really fantastic job” ensuring the campus is able to stay open for in-person classes.
“I’m really thankful for the effort that the students put in,” he said. “I think that Montana State students have done a good job this semester.”