CORONAVIRUS

Iowa State begins unprecedented fall semester after typical weekend partying

Wintersteen: 'Disregarding health and safety measures puts our community at risk'

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (The Gazette)

With students back in Ames for Monday’s start of classes, onlookers over the weekend flooded social media with photos of packed bars, crowded backyards, and other images depicting new and returning Cyclones partying shoulder-to-shoulder — without masks — to celebrate what would appear to be a typical fall semester.

But this fall is not only atypical, it’s unprecedented — as COVID-19 continues to infect and kill Iowans, prompting administrators last spring to nix in-person classes entirely and spend months and millions preparing for a safe return to at least a hybrid version of instruction this fall.

“We know there were large gatherings and parties over the weekend,” according to a Monday morning message from Wendy Wintersteen. “Disregarding health and safety measures puts our community at risk and it jeopardizes our chances for successfully completing the semester in November.”

Noting extreme measures her administration has taken over the summer to “support students’ desire to return to campus” — installing no-touch doors, hand sanitizing stations, Plexiglass barriers, among many other things — Wintersteen urged personal responsibility in making it all work.

“It’s up to all of us to make this semester as safe and successful as possible,” she wrote in her message. “Each of us must take personal responsibility to show that Cyclones Care.”

In addition to physical changes across the ISU campus, administrators mandated COVID-19 tests before any of its 9,000-plus residential students could move on to campus; it asked its thousands of faculty and staff to prepare in-person and online versions of their curriculum; it rolled out a digital “symptom checker” to curb symptomatic spread; and it’s mandated face coverings.

Wintersteen reminded students of the personal responsibility they bear — checking symptoms, wearing masks, washing hands, and physically distancing “everywhere possible.”

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“Indoors and outside,” she wrote. “And avoid large gatherings where distancing is difficult or impossible.”

The president’s Monday morning message was not the first time she’s stressed these new mandates and expectations. All students have received frequent communication over the summer about what this fall semester will look like. Wintersteen has held town hall informational sessions.

And all students were required to take a new COVID-19 training before arriving.

That indicates many simply ignored the messaging and training — posting photos and videos online all weekend celebrating, among other things, “801 Day,” which historically has symbolized the Saturday after fraternity and sorority recruitment when the students finally are allowed to drink — at 8:01 a.m.

“If you have been going to the bars and parties during this pandemic (801 day or not) YOU ARE THE PROBLEM,” one Twitter user wrote Sunday. “I’m so disgusted by the amount of people I saw going out this weekend.”

A Twitter user who is listed in the ISU directory as a political science student wrote, “I am being 100 percent serious when I say that if you are in Ames and going to parties and binge drinking and spreading this virus while the rest of us make the sacrifices necessary to successfully have a semester then you are a selfish person full stop.”

The ISU Police Department on Saturday sent this alert: “Don’t jeopardize the fall semester! Be responsible — wear a face covering, stay 6 feet apart, avoid large gatherings.”

Of the total 6,509 ISU students who were tested before moving into their respective residence halls between July 31 and Aug. 13, the campus found 141 had COVID-19 — amounting to a 2.2 percent positivity rate.

Those students were required to isolate — either in reserved campus housing or at home. The university also tested students Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as move-in continued, and results from those days are expected later this week.

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Both Iowa State and the University of Iowa crafted new housing contracts for this academic year that explicitly free them from COVID-19 liability.

“Residing in communal living environments and living with a roommate or among other residents involves risk of contracting infectious disease, including COVID-19,” according to Iowa State’s 2020-21 housing contract. “By choosing to live on-campus, residents acknowledge and understand the risk of possible exposure to and illness from infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

“Iowa State University and (Department of Residence) is not and will not be liable for any public health threat to which a student or visitor may be exposed, including but not limited to the transmission of any infectious disease such as COVID-19.”

Although Iowa State doesn’t control its fraternity and sorority houses, each chapter property has its own plan for COVID-19 testing and mitigation, according to ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt.

ISU and the University of Northern Iowa started classes Monday — a week earlier than planned — in hopes of ending the semester the day before Thanksgiving, allowing them to offer in-person instruction for the full term and also avoid bringing students back after high-risk holiday travel.

UI kept its original start date at Aug. 24, and it’s going entirely virtual after Thanksgiving, meaning that campus’ last day of the semester will be Dec. 18.

After seeing the partying in Ames via Twitter over the weekend, one user aired skepticism the fall semester will persist with any in-person portion for long.

“The amount of blatant disregard for public health and safety I’ve seen in Ames in the last 24 hours is truly astounding. You guys are the reason we won’t last more than a month on campus. I hope 801 was worth it.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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