Coronavirus forces University of Alaska to move classes online, extend spring break

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. (Courtesy University of Alaska)

The University of Alaska system is extending spring break, moving most classes online and canceling events amid the threat of coronavirus, UA President Jim Johnsen announced Thursday. It’s also asking students to leave on-campus dorms for the rest of the semester.

“We think prevention is absolutely critical,” Johnsen said during a phone call with reporters. “We want to make sure that our university communities across the state, from Ketchikan all the way up to Kotzebue and many places in between, are safe and that we do our piece to slow the spread of the disease as it may take place here in the state.”

Alaska’s first known case of coronavirus was reported late Thursday, shortly after Johnsen’s announcement.

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Across Alaska, the coronavirus threat is canceling events, suspending travel and disrupting the economy. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has signed an emergency declaration. The Anchorage School District announced Thursday that all of its schools will remain closed for at least one week after spring break. Alaska Pacific University is also moving its classes online.

Related: Anchorage schools to remain closed for one week after spring break amid coronavirus concerns

UA will suspend most in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester, Johnsen said. Faculty will instead deliver lessons by other methods such as email, video or over the phone.

Johnsen said he extended spring break an extra week to give faculty time to prepare. Most faculty members are expected to continue to come to campus, he said.

“Classes will restart via distance delivery on March 23,” said a statement from UA. “University offices will remain open throughout the rest of the semester, unless the situation warrants changing that.”

Alaska’s public university system has more than 6,500 employees and 21,000 students across three main universities and about a dozen community campuses. Students have been on their week-long spring break since Monday and were supposed to return next week.

Johnsen said university chancellors may make some exceptions and allow some classes to be held in person, such as lessons that require lab work.

“But again, personal safety measures are paramount whenever these few exceptions will be made,” he said.

He acknowledged that not all students have computer access, and said UA is working to provide ways for students to get online, through computer labs, libraries or other facilities, “again ensuring social distancing.”

Follow our coverage of coronavirus across Alaska.

UA is also asking students to leave on-campus dorms for the rest of the semester as a preventative measure. There are about 1,600 students who live in the dorms.

“Students can either move completely out of the residence halls now, or gather anything they need for the rest of the semester and return later to move out of their rooms,” said UA’s statement. “There will be a mechanism for students to request exceptions if they are unable to leave the residence halls until later in the spring.”

UA is canceling or postponing all events and gatherings of 25 people or more through the end of March.

“University leaders will revisit events guidance later this month and make a determination regarding whether to cancel events for the rest of the semester,” the statement said. “That discussion will include a decision on commencement ceremonies.”

The university system is also currently wrestling with budget gaps driven by cuts to state funding. Johnsen said he expects to request financial assistance from the State of Alaska as its responds to the coronavirus threat.

The university system joins a host of other academic institutions that have canceled or postponed in-person classes. That includes the University of Washington, Seattle University, University of California, Berkeley and UCLA, as well as many Ivy League and East Coast schools.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.