CU Campus Opens for Fall Semester Amid COVID-19

College classes resumed at CU Boulder today with thousands of students from across the country having returned to the university to start the fall semester. KGNU’s Roz Brown spoke with two university administrators who, despite the coronavirus pandemic, believe enough preparation has been made for a successful return to in-person learning.

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It may not be the joyous spectacle we’re all used to, but according to CU’s chief operating officer Pat O’Rourke, that hasn’t stopped students from wanting to be here.

“I had a conversation with someone I went to high school with about his daughter coming to Boulder,” said O’Rourke. “The parents asked if she really wanted to come because it wouldn’t be normal. She agreed it wouldn’t be the same as their college days, but said she didn’t want COVID to define her education.”

After closing the campus in March at the outset of the health crisis, parents helped their students check-in to residence halls last week ahead of today’s first day of classes. The university will offer a combination of in-person and online learning and has been working closely with the Boulder County Health Department. O’Rourke says all the expected protocols are in place.

“We’re going to have a requirement that everyone on campus wears a mask, both inside and outside and that they social distance in classrooms, which have been set up to allow that,” said O’Rourke.

As of Sunday, CU Boulder had conducted 2,400 COVID-19 tests and confirmed 16 positive cases. O’Rourke says that was expected.

“We know we’re going to have some positive cases,” said O’Rourke. “We also know that testing is working because we’ve been able to do contact tracing and require quarantine to protect the community. It’s not whether we’ll have cases, but if we’ll be able to respond to them.”

A total of 33,000 students have enrolled for 2020 Fall semester classes at CU Boulder

Older adults are much more vulnerable to COVID-19 than those college-aged. At the same time, 20-somethings are far more likely to hang out with friends, forgo social distancing and possibly transmit the virus to the larger community. Provost Russ Moore believes the institution is in good shape to move forward, if everyone is vigilant and remembers the virus isn’t going away anytime soon.

“We’re learning more and more about the virus every day and control is largely based on behavior and if there are breaks in good behavior we’re prepared to go to more remote capabilities,” said Moore.

Noting that alcohol has been a common factor in the spread of COVID among young people, Governor Jared Polis has extended his order to bars and restaurants that “last call” can occur no later than 10 p.m. He said the reduction of cases in Colorado made him hopeful the state can expand the opportunity for people to enjoy themselves. But added that he’s concerned about encouraging a party atmosphere in college towns such as Boulder, since many students returning to campus are coming from communities with a much higher presence of the virus. Moore says there will be consequences for students not following the protocols.

“We have modified our student code of conduct to include COVID safety violations, just like alcohol and possession violations,” noted Moore. “If there is a failure to wear a mask or follow other protocols we would begin discipline procedures for those students.”

Moore hopes testing, tracing and monitoring capabilities will be enough to keep the university open.

“A good part of our plan is dependent on people’s behavior and adherence to protocols, but again, if there was a perfect storm in protocol violations we might have to transition our operations and I’m worried that would prevent us from providing a rich academic experience for students or maintain research operations,” said Moore.

Wondering if COVID-19 has reduced CU’s enrollment for the fall semester? No. Compared with last fall, undergraduate enrollment is very similar, and there’s been an increase in graduate student enrollment. A total of 33,000 students have enrolled for classes.