Iowa State, UNI to start fall semester early, end before Thanksgiving

More campus COVID-19 plans emerge

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

Holding classes on Labor Day. Starting winter break at Thanksgiving. Requiring face masks. Reconfiguring classrooms. Erecting Plexiglas partitions. Isolating students and tracking their contacts.

Iowa’s public universities are careening toward a new reality this fall — with two of the three on Wednesday divulging much-anticipated details of what the global COVID-19 pandemic will mean for the storied collegiate experience come August.

Among the changes sure to impact Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa student schedules — and perhaps summer jobs and internships — is an earlier fall semester start on Aug. 17, a week before classes were supposed to resume Aug. 24.

Classes, per the new ISU and UNI coronavirus calendars, now will end Nov. 25 — the day before Thanksgiving. They were supposed to wrap weeks later in December.

By starting sooner, holding classes on Labor Day, and abbreviating finals week, students will lose just a handful of days, said John Lawrence, vice president for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and chair of his campus’ fall planning committee.

The shortened and shifted fall semester aims to avoid sending students home for a week — potentially exposing them to travel-related COVID-19 risks — and then bringing them back for three more before sending them home again. It also aims to squeeze in the fall experience before the heart of flu season, which often is breeding ground for other sicknesses.

“We mainly talked about the travel,” Lawrence said. “But it does coincide with flu season. So that was a part of the discussion.”


The University of Iowa didn’t update its fall-return plans Wednesday. Although administrators on May 15 reported planners submitted scenarios and recommendations to a critical incident management team, which expected to communicate fall strategies in June.

None of the three campuses have shared details about potential changes for the spring semester, scheduled to start Jan. 11 for ISU and UNI students and Jan. 19 at UI.

The ISU and UNI truncated fall semester follows molds and models other public universities have proposed in recent days and weeks — like the University of Notre Dame, which is starting back Aug. 10 and ending before Thanksgiving; University of Nebraska, which is ending in-person instruction at Thanksgiving but adding a minisession of online-only instruction before winter break; and Purdue University, which also announced weeks ago that in-person instruction would end at Thanksgiving.

In a Wednesday message to campus, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said the amended academic calendar “provides us with the best opportunity to complete the fall semester safely and successfully on campus, while maximizing in-person instruction, maintaining experiential learning goals, and completing final exams on-site.”

Like campuses across the country, Iowa’s public universities are planning a sweeping array of safety precautions and mitigation measures, including face mask expectations, sanitizing stations, reconfigured classrooms, more online options, testing, contact tracing, and isolation spaces.

Should all that fail to quell a COVID-19 spread across campus, though, Lawrence said Iowa State is considering a threshold where administrators would employ additional action and more extreme measures.

“What are steps that can be taken, rather than all or nothing — you’re either on campus or you’re gone?” he said. “Are there intermediate steps that can be done to lessen the risk further … rather than the worst-case scenario, which is you send everybody home, going online.”

The Board of Regents push to resume in-person classes was driven by clear demand for the on-campus experience, officials said.


“The academics is a part of it, but it’s the interaction with other students. It’s the student organizations, the clubs, the leadership opportunities,” Lawrence said. “It won’t be the same as always. But how do we still have a meaningful experience that allows them to be here on campus, still experiencing not only Iowa State, but continuing their education at a time of a pandemic.”

Residence halls

Even before the pandemic arrived in Iowa, enrollment numbers across its public universities were trending down. Although the campuses haven’t revealed summer enrollment totals and numbers of students committed for fall, the downward trend has created enough residence hall vacancy to accommodate COVID-19-related mitigation measures.

Iowa State, for example, is offering just single- and double-occupancy rooms — using its previous triple and quad options for just one or two roommates. With operating capacity near 11,500, Lawrence said Iowa State has plenty of space for its 9,500 contracts.

And if some opt out, Iowa State will move to more single rooms.

The campus also plans to reserve some residence hall space for students needing to be isolated or quarantined should they become sick or have close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

“Even after setting that aside, we have plenty of space,” Lawrence said.

Move-in will be extended across the ISU and UNI campuses, as will sanitation and distancing measures. At Iowa State, students moving in must take a COVID-19 test. Residence hall staff must perform a daily symptom checks before reporting to work.

“We’re not mandating temperature checks, but we are going to have a major campaign around culture change — so, when you get up in the morning, self-monitoring, ‘How do you feel today?’” Lawrence said, noting hand-sanitizing and washing, social distancing, and face-mask wearing will become “part of our principles of community.”

“If we want to be on campus,” he said. “We have to keep the entire campus community safe.”

Face masks

A key part of the culture shift will be the expectation that all students, faculty, and staff wear some form of face coverings — be it a mask or shield — in public buildings and spaces and when social distancing isn’t possible.

Although the campuses are phrasing their respective mask admonitions as “expectations,” Lawrence said administrators are discussing how to handle the potential failure to comply.

“We’re going to have students holding each other accountable,” he said.

The push will go out through residence hall staff, fraternities and sororities, and instructors. Options for students who show up to class unprotected could include making them buy a mask in a hallway vending machine or use a disposable one from a professor stash.


“The question about can you be kicked out of class, can there be disciplinary action … we’re still working on that,” Lawrence said. “We don’t have a definitive answer on that today.”

Classroom changes

Because students and faculty have different needs, and because some courses are easier to conduct online than others, the campuses will offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual academic opportunities.

“Our intent is for courses with labs, studio sections, capstone projects and other interactive experiences to largely be delivered through in-person instruction,” according to the Wednesday message from ISU President Wintersteen. “We are making every effort to maximize in-person learning and the student learning experiences that are a defining characteristic of an Iowa State education.”

The hybrid model makes easier a shift online, should that become necessary.

And, for classes happening in person, the campuses are reconfiguring spaces and scheduling to reduce the number of students in a classroom and cut down on congestion in buildings, hallways, walkways, and buses.

Testing and tracing

Although details still are being ironed out, Iowa State plans to test all faculty, staff, and students for COVID-19 when they arrive at the residence halls for the start of the fall semester.

“If we can get testing done early when they arrive, we can get a sense of what the infection level is,” Lawrence said, noting results are expected back “very quickly.” “Then, for our own contact tracing team, if there is someone that tests positive, we will know right away, and we’ll go back to them and say, ‘OK, who else have you been in contact with in the last 48 hours?’”

ISU student health will head contact tracing efforts, with help from local public health experts. Wintersteen, in her announcement, stressed the university’s testing program will include all students, faculty, and staff, and Lawrence said the campus continues to investigate the possibility and relevance of antibody testing.

Neither UNI or UI have unveiled plans for testing on their respective campuses.


Like every other facet of campus life, the dining experience will get a coronavirus face-lift, with UNI pushing mobile ordering that avoids contact when paying, a student meal plan option with “unlimited meals to-go,” and satellite pickup.

Iowa State also is rolling out “anytime meal plans” and hot options at “get and go” locations. That campus also will employ contactless payment applications and reduce seating capacity in dining centers.

Food workers will do daily symptoms checks and wear protective gear.

“COVID-19 has changed the way all of us go about our daily lives,” according to the ISU dining website. “Here at ISU dining, we’ve embraced that change and are excited to offer several expanded and new services.”

Study Abroad

And while the universities are eager to reignite a full slate of stalled programming, they’re keeping idle for now study abroad offerings. UNI has canceled all programming abroad for fall and winter. Iowa State has nixed all studies abroad scheduled to depart before Dec. 1.


The University of Iowa — although it hasn’t announced changes for the fall — canceled study abroad programming this summer.

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