TOPEKA, Kansas — The University of Kansas on Wednesday delayed the start of in-person classes until March 23, with the possibility of continuing online-only for weeks after that, in the wake of the continued spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Top administrators at other public universities in the state, meanwhile, made clear they may follow suit with their own campus shutdowns.
The Kansas Board of Regents, which governs the state’s public universities, voted Wednesday night to allow each school to make its own decision about how to address the coronavirus — whether to extend spring break and switch to online classes.
Most modifications to the academic calendar require Board of Regents approval.
In an emergency meeting Wednesday night, the regents and the heads of KU, Kansas State University, and other schools weighed the costs and benefits of keeping students, many of whom are on spring break, from returning to campus for at least another two weeks.
If Kansas colleges shut down their classrooms and go online to slow the spread of the virus, they would join more than 100 schools around the country that have sent students home. Among them: the University of Missouri, Harvard University, Syracuse University, Rice University and all the public colleges in Ohio.
Lee Norman, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said there has been no community transmission of the coronavirus in the state. So far, Kansas has recorded a single confirmed case of the illness in Johnson County — a woman diagnosed after traveling to the northeastern U.S.
But Norman warned officials during the meeting that people returning to campus from other states or countries could easily be carrying the virus.
Norman suggested sending students home rather than risk infections from interactions in dorms, dining halls and off-campus hangouts,
“We’re on a banana peel right now,” he told the board. “It would take one or a small cluster of people to come back and then to infect people around them.”
“The safest thing to do,” he said, “is cancel classes.”
The most likely plan, some university officials said, is extending their spring breaks by one week to give instructors and staff time to prepare materials for online teaching, then instructing students not to come back to campus.
It would be better to be overly cautious than underprepared, said KU Chancellor Doug Girod. He noted that a couple of KU faculty have been exposed to the coronavirus at conferences and a family in Lawrence is under investigation for exposure.
“I would argue we would hold profound liability in this situation,” he said. “If somebody dies on my campus, I’m going to get sued.”
Girod said KU plans to reach out to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and city manager for collaboration on keeping students from congregating in businesses off campus.
“The focus is to not let students lose progress towards a degree,” he said.
K-State will try to reduce the risk of transmission the best it can, but not every student can leave the school, said university president Richard Myers. That includes international students, people who live in off-campus housing, and others who have no place to go.
“It’s not going to work for all students,” Myers said. “We’re just trying to mitigate the risk the best we can. We know it’s not a 100% solution.”
Especially at risk are older faculty and staff, who have a higher risk of being seriously ill if they contract the virus, he added.
“A campus is not just students,” Myers said.
Officials discussed whether to keep campuses shuttered for the rest of the semester, or just for a couple of weeks, with a re-evaluation and possible extension if more people test positive for coronavirus.
Jay Golden, the president of Wichita State University, said the school might have to send students home early because its spring break begins March 23.
Allison Garrett, president of Emporia State University, said student-athletes would continue with practice, and attendance at events would be limited to athletes and required staff. The school plans to resume normal operations for staff next week, although students will not be on campus. It plans to allow staff to work from home if needed.
Other issues will be decided at the regents’ regular meeting on March 18, said board president and CEO Blake Flanders. Among them are credit for science labs, which are difficult to complete online.
The board decided to let universities make their own decision because each school is so different, Flanders told the Kansas News Service after the meeting. While not every university has released a public plan, they have been discussing contingencies for weeks.
“I'm not sure every element was set in stone,” he said, “but I think they have a really good idea about how they're going to move forward.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.