With the start of spring classes slated for Wednesday, University of Idaho President Scott Green said COVID-19 safety measures and testing procedures that made its fall semester a success will continue.
In a Monday interview with the Daily News, Green said the school is in the process of testing students and, just like the fall semester, students will be expected to receive a negative result before they will be allowed to attend live classes. Green said the UI will continue to conduct surveillance testing of students and faculty as well as wastewater testing to help identify potential hotspots within the on-campus community.
He said spring requirements surrounding masking and social distancing will also continue. Those who test positive will be put in isolation and anyone who had close contact with someone who receives a positive test will be expected to quarantine until they receive their own test results.
While the plan for the spring is not materially different from strategies implemented in the fall semester, Green said now that the UI is familiar with what must be done, he expects the process of managing the effects of the pandemic to go smoother.
“We’ve got a lot more experience now testing and processing and all the kinks have been worked out so it’s been a lot more efficient and smooth,” Green said. “We’re able to turn around these tests, sometimes, in a matter of hours now and get people isolated quickly, and those that they’ve had contact with quarantined quickly.”
Green said the next big task facing the UI will be students returning from break who are infected and implementing appropriate procedures to curb the risk of an on-campus outbreak. Just like in the fall, Green said the UI has committed to footing the bill for student tests whether they are conducted on-campus or not. In fact, he said if people are showing symptoms, it is preferred that they be tested through Gritman Medical Center’s drive-through apparatus.
Green said students will be expected to attend classes in-person so long as health allows and if they must quarantine or isolate, they will be expected to attend class virtually as much as they are able. If the school identifies hotspots within certain on-campus residences, it is possible entire dorms or Greek chapters will be asked to quarantine.
So long as things go smoothly as they did in the fall, Green said he does not anticipate having to shift spring classes online but he said the UI will be paying close attention to capacity at local hospitals. Noting Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene hospitals have struggled with capacity issues in recent months, Green said one doesn’t have to look far to find hospital districts that have been overwhelmed.
“The big circuit breaker for us is if Gritman Medical Center gets overwhelmed and to me, that’s the most important thing,” Green said. “They’ve been busy, but not overwhelmed -- in fact, we’re probably one of the few communities around here that has not been overwhelmed yet.
Despite the effects of the pandemic, Green said he feels good about the UI’s fiscal trajectory going into the new year. If it is able to remain open through the spring, he said the UI could find itself on even better financial footing than when the pandemic began, “which is just remarkable.”
In addition to a number of fiscal health initiatives implemented by the university, he said Idaho Gov. Brad Little is recommending the state legislature end a 5 percent holdback for Idaho public education budgets that was enacted in response to the pandemic. If the legislature agrees, it would restore about $4.6 million and allow the UI to end a mandatory furlough program among other austerity measures.
Additionally, Green said a 50-year deal to lease the UI’s steam plant to third-party concessionaire Sacyr Plenary Utility Partners Idaho LLC has come to fruition and will fuel a number of university initiatives. He said the agreement is expected to generate around $6 million annually which will fund measures promoting student success, expansion of distance learning capabilities and the university’s stated objective of becoming a top-flight research institution in the country.
“Strategically, we’re moving forward and doing a lot of things that are going to benefit our university and our students and our faculty for years to come,” Green said. “I’m just, I’m just really excited about that.”
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to email@example.com.