With an influx of new freshmen on campus this fall semester, UM is seeing more sick students and less isolation and quarantine space than last year. After on-campus residence halls started maskless, increasing COVID-19 rates have sent dorm rooms back to masked living in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.



While on-campus residence halls started maskless, increasing COVID-19 rates have sent dorm rooms back to masked living. 

The University of Montana COVID Response Team emailed students and faculty Sept. 17, stating UM would temporarily expand the mask requirement to indoor spaces on campus, including common areas in the residence halls. 

Then on Monday, the Missoula City-County Health Department reported enough UM cases to push the active campus cases to over 100 for the first time in a year.

“We hope that wearing masks in the residence halls while we’re experiencing high numbers of cases in the community will be effective at keeping numbers low in the dorms,” Paula Short, Associate Vice President of Campus Preparedness and Response, said. 

With the county’s contact tracing efforts strained and an influx of new freshmen on campus, UM is seeing more sick students and less isolation and quarantine space than last year. 

Short said campus is seeing a relatively small number of students in quarantine and isolation, indicating they are not seeing large case numbers in the residence halls.

UM’s director of strategic communications, Dave Kuntz, said the University has set aside a significantly smaller number of isolation and quarantine housing units than last year. He said more students are choosing to spend their COVID-19 sentence at home.

Isolation and quarantine housing is meant for students living in residence halls. Those in University apartments are supposed to isolate in place. Kuntz said they had not reached half capacity in the units set aside yet, as of Oct. 1.

Kuntz added that UM cannot disclose the number of students in quarantine or the location of the units set aside, as it could identify someone’s health status. 

Contact tracing in the residence halls creates additional challenges, as students are showering, brushing their teeth and doing laundry in a small, confined setting. 

The University of Montana conducts contact tracing in the dorm rooms with the Missoula City-County Health Department.  

The county is responsible for contact tracing and issuing quarantine and isolation orders, whether a student tested positive at Curry Health Center or at an off-campus location. 

The University is more involved in the tracing process in classrooms, as teachers have increased the monitoring of their attendance and seating charts this semester. 

However, if students test positive for COVID-19 at Curry, they are asked if they consent to having a limited amount of information shared with UM Housing so the isolation process will move quicker. A meal plan and isolation unit are prepared for students while they wait for a response from the county. 

Kuntz said the UM COVID Response Team (CRT) meets with county leaders every morning to assess where COVID-19 is in the county and off-campus. 

“UM has a great advantage of being in such close partnership with the Missoula County Health Department each day,” Kuntz said.  

The state contact tracing coordinator for Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, Meagan Gillespie, said a close contact is someone who was within six feet of an individual who has COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. A person is still considered a close contact if they were wearing a mask while around someone with COVID-19. 

Gillespie said if a resident assistant conducts contact tracing for their hall, they should have a plan for how they would conduct tracing or attend a contact tracing course through the University. 

But, according to UM Housing Director Sandra Curtis, resident assistants at UM are not involved in the contact tracing process.

“The communications between RAs and students on their floor is imperative,” Gillespie said. “By setting the stage for what students can expect and what the strategy is to prevent COVID-19, it will permit better communication, timely investigations, and hopefully reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

With UM’s policy to defer to the county’s health department, which is over-burdened and under-staffed, it takes about four days for close contacts of a positive case to be notified. 

“Montana may not be leading the country in our COVID-19 vaccination rate; however, I feel strongly that we could help combat the spread of COVID-19 with a concentrated contact tracing effort,” Gillespie said. 

Gillespie encouraged University students to become contact tracers, especially those majoring in public health or anyone willing to help during this time. One can earn a Montana Public Health Contact Tracing Certificate via UM’s extended courses