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Montana Legislators Discuss Coronavirus Prep At Universities

A block grid of legistors' faces in a screen grab from a Zoom meeting.
Montana Public Affairs Network
The legislative Education Interim Committee discusses Montana State University coronavirus preparations ahead of the fall semester.

A Montana lawmaker expressed concern on June 18 over preparations to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus when universities reopen for in-person classes this fall.

Brock Tessman, a deputy commissioner of higher education, told the Legislative Education Interim Committee that state officials are working with city and county staff to determine testing capacity for Montana universities come August. But he couldn’t provide specific details on the testing strategy when asked by lawmakers.

Democratic Rep. Tom Woods, an adjunct in Montana State University’s physics department, said he wants more concrete plans from university system officials.

"What I want to hear is that we do have the tests. We are bringing them in. Because we’re putting my community at risk, as well as myself, as well as my family. And it’s one thing to hope, but again hope is not a strategy,” Woods said.

The fall semester begins early the week of Aug. 16 this year and will conclude before Thanksgiving on Nov. 25.

Tessman said university staff will emphasize testing at the start of the semester, when many students and staff will be traveling to Montana from out-of-state. He expects everyone who is symptomatic will be tested and “hopes” that universities will be able to provide tests to all individuals who want one.

Tessman said students and staff will be strongly advised to wear face masks to prevent spreading the virus but most won’t be required.

“In line with our thinking that compliance is best achieved through a healthy culture and not through a culture that is dependent on rampant enforcement and the letter of the law, we’ll get a higher rate of mask wearing and we’ll create a safer environment," Tessman said.

Woods didn’t agree with that thinking.

“I don’t think that’s a good course of action but it’s your call and I get that," he said.

University system planning guidelines recommend designating isolation rooms for campus residents who test positive for COVID-19 or otherwise need to be quarantined.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.