by ALEXANDRA RETTER
In its biggest change for next school year, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (SMU) plans to have fall and Easter breaks again. Because of the pandemic, the university shortened fall semester 2020 and spring semester 2021. SMU removed usual breaks, such as days off in the fall and around Easter. The university now plans for breaks to be back in fall 2021 after it re-institutes a traditional academic calendar.
Other colleges in Winona recently announced their plans for an in-person fall semester. Winona State University expects 70 percent of classes to be in person, and Minnesota State College Southeast plans to continue providing face-to-face instruction for the hands-on components of its trade and technical programs.
SMU General Counsel Ann Merchlewitz said she believes students are looking forward to the return to the typical academic calendar. “This kind of condensed academic calendar without the breaks is pretty stressful for them,” she said. She added, “Those kinds of consistent breaks that are built into a traditional calendar, I think, will be much healthier for the students.” SMU has implemented several break days during spring semester 2021 to give students an opportunity to recharge. Returning to the traditional academic calendar also allows faculty members to structure their classes as they have in past non-pandemic years instead of concentrating their courses as they did in fall 2020 and in spring 2021, Merchlewitz said.
Though the calendar may shift, several aspects of life on campus are expected to be similar in the fall. Courses have been offered in person for the most part during this academic year, Merchlewitz said, and the university plans for those offerings to continue. “Our students have clearly indicated to us they want to be on-ground, in person,” she said. “We feel like we’ve managed our COVID risks, or mitigated against COVID risks, pretty well. And as more people are vaccinated, we just think we can continue to offer courses on ground and continue to be successful.”
Students will also continue to social distance in class. SMU is awaiting official Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidance regarding social distancing, Merchlewitz continued. “So right now, we’re leaning toward keeping classrooms set at six feet,” she said.
In-person small group gatherings are another part of campus life that is slated to be similar in fall 2021. Student organizations and groups that wish to hold these meetings have completed COVID-19 gathering forms throughout this academic year. On the forms, students answer questions about what the gathering will be, where it will be, how many people are anticipated to attend and the COVID protocols that will be in place. A committee reviews the forms and decides whether to approve the gatherings. Merchlewitz said that come fall, the form will likely still be in place.
Question marks remain about other aspects of life on campus, including dining halls and athletics. SMU is keeping an eye out for MDH guidance on COVID protocols for dining areas and hoping to increase the opportunities for in-person dining so students do not have to carry out food from dining halls and eat at their residences as often, Merchlewitz said. The university is also awaiting guidance on fall sports from its athletics conference, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Finally, SMU is hoping to receive MDH guidance regarding theaters, as its theater department is currently offering some programs to limited audiences of only university faculty, staff and students, Merchlewitz said.