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Students stroll front campus at Georgia College. 

The University System of Georgia (USG) sent out a memo to its 26 member institutions last week outlining possible plans for resuming instruction in the fall. 

Georgia College is one of those members along with other schools like the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Mercer University. Depending on their college’s academic calendars, many students left campus for spring break in March and never returned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes resumed in an online format so students could finish out the semester. 

The 31-page document lays out three contingency plans for the fall 2020 semester — returning to campus with limited social distancing, fall classes begin fully online, and the possibility of moving classes and operations online for “a period of time” during the semester.

“The plan is for all University System of Georgia (USG) institutions to begin the fall semester face-to-face,” the beginning of the memo reads. “It is important to bring our students back to our campuses so that they may engage in the full higher education experience, which we have all invested much time in developing. The health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff are our top priority.”

The guidance goes on to say that universities must be ready to transition from face-to-face instruction to online based on changes in pandemic conditions during the semester since the situation is very “fluid.”

“While we have proven we can move to an online environment very quickly, we now need to develop and implement best practices for moving to the online environment,” the memo reads.

Before diving into the particulars of each contingency plan, USG tells its members to have contingency plan No. 1, which calls for classes beginning with social distancing, fully developed and work with that plan as a basis. The plan calls for a “gradual and staggered” return to campus for faculty and staff, meaning schedules will be developed to limit the number of personnel on campus in the lead-up to the fall semester.

Given COVID-19’s track record in long-term care facilities, campus residence halls housing hundreds of students in one building could be a breeding ground for the disease. USG says that residence hall rooms will be viewed as a shared residence similar to a family’s home, so no social distancing is expected to be practiced in those spaces. Students who live in on-campus housing will be responsible for doing their part to stop the spread of the disease in their dorms/suites, including cleaning. 

Campus dining halls are another large shared space for students and staff. The guidance for those facilities states that they must have enough space to allow for social distancing and even discourage students from gathering in large groups. Universities will submit their own dining facilities plans for fall 2020 to USG. 

Athletics has its own section in USG’s first contingency plan, in which institutions are told to develop plans for factors such as financial implications, the initial return of athletes to campus, practice scenarios, games with or without spectators and travel arrangements. As is the case with all of this planning, USG says decisions related to athletics will be derived from guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the governor’s COVID-19 task force and the governor’s office. 

The second contingency plan listed in the USG memo tells universities to be prepared to fully begin the fall semester online. No further guidance is given under that section of the memo since plans two and three would require similar planning. 

The third and final contingency plan gives USG members guidance for having to move from in-person to online instruction similar to what happened in March when campuses closed. Students remained off-campus, some employees worked from home and others were on-campus to keep business going. 

“Using the spring 2020 semester as a reflection point with lessons learned, institutions should implement best practices in the online delivery of courses and in the remote delivery of institutional services,” the memo reads. “These plans should include employees working remotely when possible and employees working on campus.”

The third contingency plan does allow for those students living in campus residence halls to remain there until the possible resumption of normal classroom instruction. 

Finally, the memo goes into questions of testing and tracing the disease should it become present on campus. Employees who test positive will be asked to leave campus immediately, and the same is true of students. They will be able to return to classes/work once they meet several criteria laid out in the memo.

Since conditions surrounding the pandemic remain fluid, no dates for decisions on which contingency plan to implement are given. According to its academic calendar for fall 2020, Georgia College is scheduled to open its residence halls Aug. 13 with classes slated to begin Aug. 17.

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