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Is Colorado College the first of many Colorado schools that will cancel in-person classes as coronavirus rages?

A number of other higher education institutions in Colorado are weighing a similar move to online instruction as COVID-19 infects an increasing number of people in the state.

Colorado College's campus in Colorado Springs in October 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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As the new coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc on businesses and tourism across Colorado, it’s already proving immensely disruptive to colleges and universities in the state.

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Several institutions are weighing whether to close their campuses. Others are canceling travel for employees. And nearly all are telling their professors to prepare to move classes online.

Colorado College on Tuesday took the biggest step yet in the state, telling students they wouldn’t be able to return after their spring break, which was extended by a week because of the virus and ends later this month. Classes, administrators said, will be moved online until further notice. 

“These are difficult decisions, and ones we do not take lightly,” the private liberal arts college in Colorado Springs said in an alert posted on its website Tuesday.

Colorado College cited Jared Polis’ move on Tuesday to declare a state of emergency as part of its announcement. The number of cases rose to at least 17 on Tuesday, including an El Paso County man in his 40s who is recovering after being diagnosed with COVID-19, as the coronavirus is formally known.

MORE: Gov. Jared Polis declares state of emergency in response to coronavirus outbreak

Colorado College’s step is an extreme measure, but one that other Colorado higher education institutions are considering while monitoring the progression of the disease. 

Colorado State University is planning for the possibility of shutting down its Fort Collins campus and the University of Colorado, which on Monday reported six people on its four campuses were tested for COVID-19 (four were negative and two were pending, President Mark Kennedy wrote in a message to the CU community) has offered guidance to faculty wishing to “conduct remote/online teaching and learning.” Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Denver are preparing to pivot to online-only instruction.

The decision to shut down is a big deal, potentially disrupting education and displacing students who don’t have many housing options outside campus. Schools, however, are figuring out how to shelter students needing a place to stay.  

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Other universities across the U.S. — from Cornell to Princeton to Duke — have already migrated to online learning in hopes of slowing community spread of the new coronavirus, including schools in metro Seattle, where there were 267 confirmed cases and 23 deaths as of Tuesday night. 

Harvard University told its students to plan to work remotely when the term resumes March 23 after spring break. Stanford University in Santa Clara County, California, which has dozens of COVID-19 cases, suspended in-person classes for the last two weeks of the quarter.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education is encouraging colleges and universities to think about how they could move to online instruction, said Deputy Director Inta Morris, who is taking the lead on planning around COVID-19.

Many of them already offer a lot of online courses, Morris said, and some schools are considering a switch to online only following spring break similar to Colorado College.

MAP: Where Colorado’s coronavirus cases have been identified

The higher education department does not have the authority to mandate the closure of a campus, although in state of emergency, the governor does, Morris said. Polis says he won’t hesitate to be more aggressive in his response to the outbreak if necessary, and his administration in the coming days is expected to provide guidance to schools on how to respond to the virus’ spread.

“We are advising our campuses to have plans in place to consider when they would close and how they would do it,” Morris said.

Elena Gratton, right, a conservation biology student, talks with Charles Harp, a research associate, on the Colorado State University campus on Aug. 5, 2019 in Fort Collins, (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s going to keep spreading”

Administrators at Colorado College could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but in a media advisory circulated on Tuesday, the college stated it will continue monitoring the spread of the disease and will decide next month whether it can resume in-person classes before the academic year ends.

Colorado College doesn’t use a traditional semester system, but rather uses a unique “block plan” where students take one class at a time for about three weeks. If the situation improves, the final block of the year could be carried out as usual. 

Colorado College sophomore Izzie Hicks, who is studying environmental studies and journalism, understands the thinking around moving to online instruction, but worries it won’t measure up. 

Shove Chapel at Colorado College. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado College stresses field-based learning and discussion-based classes, she said. For her last block of the year, Hicks is slated to take a geology class that typically sends students out on field trips across the Southwest. Those excursions typically include camping and hiking.

There’s no way that can be replicated online, Hicks said.

“I think canceling class and moving it online is pretty bold, especially considering there’s not that many cases in Colorado yet,” Hicks said. “But I guess it’s just preventative because it’s going to keep spreading.”

Hicks, who canceled a trip to Washington, D.C. and New York, will be spending her spring break at home in Denver instead. Hicks said she’s packing clothing and a few essentials, hoping to return to campus after the break.

MORE: Inside the Colorado State University lab that is trying to develop the world’s first vaccine for COVID-19

But an email Colorado College sent to students on Tuesday advised them to consider taking all of their belongings home over spring break just in case they can’t return before the end of the academic year. Students who have no other option outside of staying on campus, including international students and students whose legal residence is the college, will be given room and board, the email said.

The college is giving students a week to make travel plans, pack and leave, according to Hicks.

Colorado College is also canceling most large-scale campus events in the coming weeks — including an admissions gathering — and is even considering canceling its commencement ceremony, according to the email sent to students.

Folsom Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder is just one of the major construction projects as the campus has continued to grow. (Doug Conarroe, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Auraria campus could shutter

Other institutions in the state are contemplating closing, but hope that isn’t a reaction they have to turn to.

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At the University of Denver, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner said the school is confident it will be able to stay open. Still, the university has prodded its faculty to be prepared to move their course content online for the start of the spring quarter just in case.

Colorado State University has also weighed the possibility of shutting down its Fort Collins campus in response to the new coronavirus. Lori Lynn, associate executive director of the CSU Health Network, said that would be “the worst case scenario.”

“But good planning would include that,” she added, recognizing the virus’ potential.

A lot of different factors would go into a decision to close campus at both CSU and the University of Denver, university leaders said. 

At CSU, Lynn said the university would look at the number of potential cases and the potential exposures on campus along with staff and student absences, and decisions made by local school districts.

MORE: Amid coronavirus fears, the CDC told schools to plan for remote learning. That’s harder than it sounds.

That kind of decision wouldn’t be made without accounting for where students would go. Part of CSU’s plan incorporates providing housing for students who are not able to return home, Lynn said. The university has units it could use for those students, though she said she is not aware of the specifics.

Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and the Community College of Denver also have pondered closing their shared Auraria campus in downtown Denver. There are a growing number of cases in the city. 

The decision would have to be made with input from all three schools, according to Larry Sampler, vice president for administration and finance and chief operating officer of MSU Denver.

While the university does not want to disrupt the learning environment, it will shut down if that becomes the safest decision, he said.

In the meantime, higher education institutions are blazing forward with increased precautions. Among them, schools have cut down on nonessential travel, ramped up their cleaning efforts, added more hand sanitizing stations on campuses and publicized to their communities the importance of basics like handwashing.

Haefner recognizes how fast conditions are changing as his team continues to re-evaluate their steps.

“We want to be able to pivot on a moment’s notice,” he said.