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With the pandemic raging in August 2020 and the hope of vaccines seemingly still far off, Iowa colleges and universities welcomed students, faculty and staff back to campus — sort of.
The 2020-21 academic year bore little resemblance to the college experience of yore — the one children and then teenagers dream of as they work their way through high school, through campus visits and eventually application essays, acceptance letters and commitment decisions.
Instead of fall football games, tailgating, residence hall mixers, bar crawls, packed lecture halls and library cram sessions, the COVID-19 version of college involved isolation, Plexiglas barriers, residence hall restrictions, solitary dining, Zoom class, Zoom rush, Zoom mixers and Zoom fatigue.
“I have spent my entire career in higher education,” said former University of Iowa President and University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, who over her career also served as a faculty member, dean, provost and, later, president of the Association of American Universities.
“Despite all these experiences, including leading the University of Michigan during the Great Recession, there has been no scenario like the one I’ve seen facing higher education during COVID,” Coleman told The Gazette earlier this year as part of an Iowa Ideas in-depth week discussion on higher education.
Coleman highlighted harms the pandemic caused to university revenues and expenses, recruitment and retention efforts, and the student and faculty experience.
But she also pointed out some silver linings from the seismic shifts — including affirmation of things done right, compulsion to think outside the box and the realization campuses are more malleable than previously thought.
“Remote learning can and does work well for delivering information in large lecture courses,” Coleman said. “But both students and faculty want the rewards of in-person experiences. … So we can expect a hybrid approach to pedagogy, with a mix of online and in-person teaching.”
While course delivery varies by state and institution — with some starting online, others keeping only large sections virtual and many requiring vaccination before returning to campus — Iowa’s public universities for the most part have stuck to a return to pre-pandemic education this academic year.
The Board of Regents has mandated it, in fact, per a declaration from its President Mike Richards.
“Effective for the fall 2021 semester, the institutions are required to return to offering in-person academic coursework and educational experiences to the same extent such academic coursework or educational experiences were offered in-person prior to the pandemic,” Richards said.
He conceded the institutions could explore “hybrid or distance learning academic coursework and educational experiences,” if done so in consultation with the board.
The University of Iowa, for example, has excluded classes of 150 students or more from that promise due to federal COVID-19 ventilation recommendations, according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.
Of Iowa’s three regent universities, the UI in the most recent academic year had the highest percent of courses online — about 76 percent of undergraduate hours in the fall and 72 percent in the spring.
Summer 2021 courses at the UI still were 63 percent online — as the regent mandate takes effect in the fall.
Iowa’s private and community colleges also welcomed students back to campus — although to varying degrees, with Kirkwood Community College touting its virtual options as making higher education easier to access and achieve.
“It's definitely going to be more in-person because that's what our students want,” Cornell College President Jonathan Brand told The Gazette this summer. “At the same time, we will have a small number of courses that will be entirely online. And that is driven not just by a very small subset of students who like to be online, but actually a small subset of faculty who still want to be online.”
So long as there’s demand for some maintenance of virtual-only options, Brand said, Cornell will offer them.
“Provided they have enrollment in their courses, which they do, it's good for them, it's good for the students and frankly — because I don't think this is ever going to probably go away — it's good for us to keep offering those courses.”
One thing Brand said seemed to work well for the college during the pandemic was allowing employees and faculty the freedom to be flexible.
“We gave general guidance to faculty, and we let them decide for their particular classes on a day by day, week by week basis,” he said. “And it worked beautifully.”
Alternative work arrangements
Flexibility for staff is among the COVID-19 changes that might become more permanent — with even Iowa’s regent universities, while urging a return to pre-pandemic campus experiences, conceding campus presidents can approve “continued remote or hybrid work arrangements in circumstances when there is a legitimate business rationale that serves the best interests of the institution.”
Colleges such as Cornell, too, are willing to continue new work arrangements if they make the most sense. And that means some coronavirus-common workplace practices — such as videoconference meetings — might persist.
“I think many (meetings) will continue to be virtual,” Brand said. “Because one of the things that we've adopted … is flex work policies. We've implemented a flex work policy that can give all employees the greatest ability in working remotely — either partially and in some instances entirely.”
The pandemic compelled all universities and colleges to think more creatively and strategically about how to best use buildings, rooms and other spaces. They moved some large classes, divided others, preserved some spaces for instruction and outfitted most rooms with new technology to make livestreams and video recordings possible for students unable to attend in person.
Those upgrades will stay — along with the conveniences they afford — as will the newfound education and confidence the pandemic gave instructors previously untested and untrained in virtual instruction.
“It got all of us over the hump of anxiety and apprehension,” Brand said. Cornell used the pandemic as a laboratory experiment to explore new pedagogues, online tools, ways to flip the classroom, use digital testing technologies, and “thinking about student participation in different ways,” he noted.
Although participation in Zoom classes could be dry and dark — with students sitting quietly behind black screens — Brand said he and other instructors found in some cases more engagement, with students interacting with each other and the material via the chat function or a separate group thread.
“And inviting guest speakers into our classes was so much easier this year because of Zoom,” Brand said. “We could invite people from anywhere in the world to join in, and it was easy for them.”
Still, videoconferencing didn’t work as an comparative swap for many college experiences — such as fraternity and sorority rush week and recruitment, residential hall bonding, concerts, movie nights and other social experiences meant to connect students to their communities.
Elle Boeding, student body president at University of Northern Iowa, said many resident assistants who tried to connect with those in their halls struggled to facilitate connections amid pandemic restrictions.
“Because a lot of the programming that they've been doing is on Zoom, and students really don't want to sit in class on Zoom all day and then turn around for the thing that's supposed to be fun — on Zoom,” Boeding said. Her personal experience of videoconferencing, she said, was “exhausting.”
“It doesn't make sense really why it's so exhausting,” she said. “But just being here and having to make sure that there's not things going on around you, that your roommates aren't yelling in the background or something, it’s really tiring.”
Iowa’s public universities and many private colleges have said they expect much of those social experiences — including dining halls, residence halls and sporting events — will be back to normal for the new academic year.
They’ve said that relies on students, faculty and staff getting vaccinated — even though the universities and most privates, like Cornell, aren’t mandating it.
“We really don't want to have to set aside a whole residence hall,” Brand said. “We can't set aside a residence hall for isolation.”
‘Back to so-called normal’
Most campuses have upped mental health services amid the pandemic and don’t intend to dial them back — as that issue has been garnering more attention for years.
They’ve also employed unique recruitment methods, expanded virtual campus tours, and enhanced cross-campus collaboration — expanding opportunities for non-traditional students, as enrollment declines have necessitated campus outreach beyond high school graduates.
All that diversification and non-traditional thinking has been a positive outgrowth of the destabilizing pandemic.
“I am an optimist and am feeling hopeful about what awaits us as our universities and colleges roll out their plans for reopening this fall,” Coleman told The Gazette, but added, “I have no illusions that we will ever go back to so-called normal.”
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