116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
University students or prospects who either experienced or witnessed this unparalleled academic year of quarantined dorms, shuttered dining halls, empty football stadiums and back-to-back virtual classes often with black Zoom boxes representing classmates they might never meet can expect a vastly different experience this fall.
By different, Iowa’s public universities mean similar to the typical college experience: in-person classes, face-to-face fraternity and sorority recruitment, football games, tailgating, dorm mingling, homecoming and traditional campus celebrations — including welcome week festivities.
“The university will return to offering a robust student experience typical of a Big Ten public research university, including moving into the residence halls, the OnIowa! Week of Welcome, primarily face-to-face instruction,” according to a recent University of Iowa message about fall, listing Big Ten athletics, the president’s block party and Hancher Auditorium performances among the lost experiences on track to return.
“Starting with the fall 2021 semester, the university will return to face-to-face instruction,” according to the UI, which had moved the majority of its undergraduate courses online this year to diminish COVID-19 spread across campus.
Iowa State University recently unveiled plans for a “new normal” next academic year that returns “in-person classes, labs, studios, residence, dining, student activities, and campus events to pre-pandemic levels,” according to a message from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen.
“As we move forward, the foundation of our ‘new normal’ will be based on appropriate health practices, an assumption that vaccinations will be widely available, and our deep commitment to academic quality and supporting an excellent student experience,” Wintersteen wrote.
Although the University of Northern Iowa didn’t move as many of its courses and campus activities online this year as did the UI and ISU, UNI President Mark Nook committed to bringing his institution back to more normal pre-pandemic times.
“I'm sure you have been thinking about the fall semester and what life will look like at UNI when our next school year begins,” Nook wrote in a March message. “I'm happy to let you know that we will return to the high-quality, in-person education we are known for.”
‘Hated online classes’
All three campuses still are planning extensive safety protocols — including heightened sanitation, improved classroom ventilation, potential masking and recommended vaccinations.
But the return of most in-person traditions and experiences is good news to many students, according to student government leaders like UNI’s Student Body President Elle Boeding.
“I think students are really craving that in-person experience,” Boeding, a graduating senior, said during a recent panel discussion during The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week on higher education.
A lot of students hold the opinion that “I pay for in-person classes, I signed up for in-person classes, if I wanted to have gone to college online, I would have done it,” Boeding said.
“That's the way a lot of our students are feeling,” she said, acknowledging that some did prefer virtual education this year for safety reasons.
UI senior and Student Government Vice President Mara Smith said her campus also has seen a sharp divide this year between students adamant about in-person instruction and those fearful about the health implications.
For Smith, the online experience was challenging.
“I've always hated online classes, so it was a very hard transition for me,” she said. “Last semester, I had one in-person class, and it should have just been online. And this semester, all of my classes are online. I'm very excited to be a fourth-year student.”
Both student government representatives reported many of their peers opting out this academic year — even after starting the semester.
“We saw that a lot, especially with the freshman class,” Smith said. “Students coming from high school were just like, ‘I'll just wait, I'll take a year off.’ I think that if I was in that situation, I probably would have done the same thing.”
After reporting enrollment drops at the start of the fall 2020 semester — and withdrawals throughout the term — all three of Iowa’s public universities reported more enrollment losses to start the spring semester. UI’s spring enrollment was down 7 percent from fall; ISU’s spring count was down nearly 8 percent; and UNI’s spring numbers were down nearly 9 percent.
The UI, in response to a request from The Gazette, reported another nearly 200 students withdrew after the start of this semester and 472 students canceled housing contracts this spring.
ISU saw 158 withdraws after the first 10 weeks of the semester, and 195 housing cancellations since the start of classes.
Those losses, and their impact on university budgets, are behind — at least in part — the campuses’ vows to offer a more normal experience come fall.
UI fall details
ISU and UNI so far have been mostly vague about fall semester details, but the UI recently shared with its campus a fall 2021 website describing not only the anticipated student experience, but what university employees can expect, too.
Where classes over 50 this year were moved online, instruction next year — except for some classes enrolling more than 150 students — will be primarily face-to-face.
“As the university shifts its planning to the future and a return to in-person classes, the UI will reestablish on-campus presence for most work functions,” according to a UI description of the fall 2021 employee experience. “For most employees, this will mean a return to an on-campus position.”
Deans and vice presidents will manage work arrangements based on campus guidelines that, among other things, require written documentation for remote, hybrid, or flexible work arrangements. Those alternate work arrangements must be OK’d by a supervisor and organization leadership.
“Remote or hybrid work is not a substitute for child care,” according to the guidance — which urges leadership to, as always, allow employees to meet intermittent child care needs like for snow days or sick days. “But employees requesting remote or hybrid work arrangements are responsible for ensuring ongoing child care arrangements to allow for uninterrupted work time and focus.”
Although the UI is planning mostly in-person instruction, it committed to holding classes only in spaces that meet federal ventilation recommendations and in classrooms that use technology capable of supporting online learning.
Physical barriers might still be employed in classrooms, which will be prioritized for learning — and not meetings or other purposes. And the campus will continue following public health guidance as far as masking and distancing rules go.
Students can expect mostly normal operations in the residence halls, dining centers, recreational buildings and the Iowa Memorial Union.
Although none of the three campuses has committed to a full resumption of study abroad experiences, the UI reiterated in its fall plans that it won’t be offering study abroad or university-sponsored travel outside the country through at least Aug. 1.
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