UA update: COVID-19 five-phase on-site operations plan

The University of Alaska, or UA, office along with the UA universities developed a five-phase operational plan for reopening the UA system. From most restrictive to least restrictive, these phases are intended to help UA reopen and serve the Alaska community while limiting the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

“Our goal has been and will continue to be creating a safe learning and working environment for our students and employees. We hope that as many of those activities as possible can resume in person,” according to an email sent to students by UA President Jim Johnsen. “However, it’s likely that our university communities will have more restrictions and safety measures in place than are mandated by the state or local cities and boroughs.”

The extra precautions are necessary because universities have high incidence rates of travel, group housing, mass gatherings and asymptomatic people which all increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission, Johnsen said.

Phase A

Phase A is the most restrictive of all the phases. Within this phase universities and students protect themselves through alternative course delivery, working from home and no mass gatherings. Everyone is encouraged to wear face masks and keep their hands clean. Almost all courses are distance delivery with very limited exceptions. Residence halls are closed with the exception of students who have no other options, according to the UA website’s COVID-19 Information article.

Operations will go into phase A if the risk to the UA community is high. Universities will then take the necessary steps to implement phase B.

Phase B

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Interior spaces are limited to 25% capacity and in-person classes that cannot be distance delivered will resume in person, as long as they comply with local and state mandates. For all other classes distance, blended or staggered schedules will be used. Universities must provide the necessary safety items to anyone entering a university-owned or leased facility, according to the COVID-19 information article on the UA website. Residence halls will be limited. Mass gathering and events will be allowed only if they comply with the current university event policy and Phase C. Frequent cleaning and face coverings are encouraged.

This phase goes into effect when risk is considered medium and steps will be taken to implement phase C. UAA moved into phase B on June 1.

Phase C

Interior spaces open up to 50% capacity and health assessments such as thermal scans will be used in high occupancy areas. More in-person classes will resume and alternate delivery and staggered course schedules will be used. Residence halls will be open at reduced capacity. Mass gatherings will be allowed as long as they comply with phase C safety measures and university policy.

This phase is implemented when the risk for COVID-19 is low. Steps to implement phase D will be taken.

Phase D

Interior space will be open according to current state and local regulations. Social distancing, hand washing and frequent cleaning are all encouraged. In-person classes will be fully offered and alternate delivery will be provided for social distancing. Congregate housing in residence halls will be fully open. Mass gatherings will be allowed if they comply with university policy and phase D measures.

This phase is utilized when risk is generally very low

Phase E

No additional safety measures required and all operations are full and in person.

“It is very likely that we will move back and forth among the phases as the incidence of COVID-19 ebbs and flows in our state and communities,” Johnsen said in the May 20 email.

Universities and campuses in the UA system may be in different phases at the same time UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said. For example, UAA’s Anchorage campus could be in phase B when an outbreak occurs in Homer and the campus reverts to phase A.

UAA is currently in phase B and will be so for the fall semester, according to Sandeen. That means classes with 20 students or fewer or in a room that is at 25% capacity, can occur in person. However, the need to reduce how many people come into contact with each other will remain.

“For [classes] that are face to face, it’s not going to be the same as it was before because you’re coming to campus… going to your classroom and you’re leaving,” Sandeen said. “There [aren’t] coffee shops, there’s no playing pool, there’s no hanging out.”

Extra precautions are currently being planned for face-to-face classes such as specific entrances for screening stations, hand sanitizing stations, face mask guidelines and practicing social distancing, Sandeen said.

Student housing is also not quite back to normal for the fall semester.

An undetermined, limited number of students will be allowed to live in student housing for the semester. An application process to apply to live in student housing is currently in the works. It’s likely that students will be chosen based on need, such as if they are an out-of-state student with numerous in-person classes, Sandeen said.

A reserved wing will also be dedicated to isolation if a resident becomes sick, Sandeen said.

“We’re designing that number so that we can manage and keep those people safe for the whole semester,” Sandeen said. “We’re trying to keep things predictable [and] reduce uncertainty.”

UAA is prioritizing safety in addition to ensuring student learning outcomes.

“[UAA] won’t open up completely until there’s a vaccine… that is distributed broadly or a treatment… to make it less severe is available for COVID-19,” Sandeen said.

However, a COVID-19 vaccine that immunizes against the virus may not be possible according to a Guardian article written by science editor Ian Sample.

“Vaccines are simple in principle but complex in practice. The ideal vaccine protects against infection, prevents its spread and does so safely, but none of this is easily achieved,” said Sample in the article.

Sandeen hopes that UAA will return to normal in time, but we must be patient.

“I still miss walking through the spine, [hearing] those random conversations [and] seeing people having a good time. We will get back there. We just need to wait a little bit longer,” Sandeen said.

For more information on the phases and to see what phase the Universities are in visit the UA website’s COVID-19 Information article.