‘The expectation is that we’re all in this together:’ Idaho State reopens its campus

Five months after coronavirus closed the Pocatello campus, Idaho State University came back to life Monday.

With the usual first-day-of-school activity, as students returned to the quad and classrooms. With a predictably long line at the student bookstore. And with university staff stationed at the entrance to every academic building, ready to hand out temporary facemasks to any student who needed one.

Idaho State was the first public institution to reopen for 2020-21; other colleges and universities will follow next week. A long and uncertain academic year is just beginning, but on Monday, President Kevin Satterlee called opening day a success — and the result of a lot of planning.

Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee

“We have been working nonstop since the end of spring semester to ensure that we were ready for today, so that we could open today, with classes,” Satterlee told State Board of Education members Monday.

Idaho’s campuses will look and feel different in 2020-21, but with many common safeguards across the board. In-person classes in large conference rooms, to encourage social distancing. Fewer students in residence halls. Plexiglass partitions. Thermal temperature scanners. Wellness pledges. And student orientation packages stocked with face masks and hand sanitizer.

Colleges and universities won’t have solid fall enrollment numbers until October. But Idaho State’s fall enrollment appears to be down by about 4 percent, Satterlee said. Still, that dropoff is relatively small — especially compared to national research predicting devastating decreases in the 20 percent range.

Students can choose from a mix of course offerings. More than three-fourths of classes will have some face-to-face instruction — including hybrid classes that mix in online instruction, or “high-flex” classes that allow students to attend in person on alternating class days. On average, in-person classes and labs will have 12 or 13 students, Satterlee said.

During the summer, administrators examined the catalog, class by class, trying to identify labs and other courses that cannot translate to an online platform. The idea is to take a more nuanced approach than the colleges and universities had to take in March, when they were forced to close campuses entirely. “We now feel that we can be fluid,” Satterlee said Monday.

Remaining open has been a challenge for other universities in other states, such as the University of North Carolina. At Idaho State, a university health committee will track cases tied to the campus and conduct contact tracing. Using federal coronavirus stimulus dollars, Idaho State will receive new equipment in the next few days to process up to 500 coronavirus tests a day — up from the 20 to 50 tests conducted per day since spring.

And the “mask ambassadors” will keep working the academic buildings, making sure students are wearing their coverings. The early, anecdotal evidence is promising, Satterlee said. Most students showed up for class with masks. The few who didn’t took a temporary mask without objection.

Idaho State spokesman Stuart Summers pulled an ambassador’s shift at the bookstore Monday, and spotted only one student who needed a covering. “The expectation is that we’re all in this together,” he said Tuesday.

Here’s the reopening picture across the state’s campuses:

Four-year schools

Boise State University: Despite the pandemic, enrollment at the state’s largest four-year school continues to trend upward. A week away from the start of fall classes, enrollment is up 1 percent, President Marlene Tromp said Monday, “and it continues to rise.”

One reason: Students who can’t find face-to-face classes in their home state are looking to Idaho.

Boise State’s classes will be a mix, she said, split equally between face-to-face and online learning.

Coronavirus case numbers have surged in Ada County throughout the summer, and Boise State hopes to ramp up testing capacity by mid-September. A new program — a partnership with area hospitals, and staffed in part by Boise State students — should process about 4,000 tests daily. Some of that testing capacity will be set aside for students.

University of Idaho: All students must test negative for coronavirus before they can attend classes next week, and the U of I is encouraging faculty and staff to sign up for free testing. So far, 3,360 tests have uncovered 39 active coronavirus cases, President C. Scott Green said Monday. As a result, five students are now in a campus isolation facility.

Enrollment at the Moscow campus appears to be down by 4.4 percent — but that’s an improvement. Recently, the U of I projected losses in the 5 percent range.

Like other institutions across the state, the U of I has upgraded its classroom technology for fall; the university has 220 Zoom-ready classrooms, a threefold increase from spring. Still, about 70 percent of classes will have some face-to-face learning component, at least part-time. The remaining classes will be online.

Lewis-Clark State College: The Lewiston-based college could face the sharpest enrollment decline in the state system. Enrollment numbers are down 6 to 7 percent, and the college processed 47 student withdrawals in the past week, President Cynthia Pemberton said.

“But we believe we will be able to move forward in a sustainable way,” Pemberton told the State Board.

More than two-thirds of classes will include some face-to-face component; 30 percent of classes will be online.

Two-year colleges

College of Western Idaho: Because community colleges offer open enrollment, many students tend to sign up at the last minute. CWI could see a 2 to 3 percent enrollment increase next week, or more. “But I have no way of really telling,” President Bert Glandon said during a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce online interview Monday.

Summer enrollment was up 8 percent.

CWI will offer a menu of face-to-face and online instruction options this fall. About a third of  classes will be held in person.

College of Southern Idaho: Course offerings at the Twin Falls campus will be nearly evenly split between face-to-face learning (47 percent) and online courses (43 percent). The remaining classes will be a hybrid between in-person and remote instruction.

College of Eastern Idaho: About two-thirds of CEI’s classes will go online. And with space limited on the Idaho Falls campus — forcing CEI to move some classes to the cafeteria or its board room — the college is aggressively pushing online options, President Rick Aman said Monday.

Fall enrollment could increase by 4 to 5 percent, he said.

North Idaho College: About 60 percent of courses on the Coeur d’Alene campus will include at least some face-to-face component, with 40 percent of classes online. In the event of an outbreak, most of those face-to-face classes could quickly go online, President Rick MacLennan said Monday.

NIC has done about as much as it can to set up protocols, he said, and now it’s a question of how the semester unfolds starting next week. And that’s hard to gauge. “There’s still the fear throughout the community,” MacLennan said.


Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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