CORONAVIRUS

Iowa universities stress over bar reopenings

Campuses in no rush to increase face-to-face classes

Bar staff check IDs and ensure that customers are wearing masks Aug. 22 as they enter DC's in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/f
Bar staff check IDs and ensure that customers are wearing masks Aug. 22 as they enter DC’s in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has moved s far larger share of its classes online amid the COVID-19 pandemic than Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa, according to reports Thursday to the Board of Regents, but none of them are in a hurry to resume in-person learning.

While the governor this week lifted her emergency health order closing bars around UNI, the closures remain in effect around the ISU and UI campuses until Sunday unless revised before then.

“The bar closure in our county has been a tremendous help to us,” UI Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen told regents. “Our numbers have absolutely plummeted since that time. We haven’t had a triple-digit student cases on a daily basis since Sept 4.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Aug. 27 ordered nightclubs, breweries and bars in six counties — including Johnson, Story and Black Hawk — to close until Sunday. Restaurants in those communities, home to the three public universities, also had to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m.

This week, she amended her order to lift the closures early in all but Johnson and Story counties — meaning bars in UNI’s Black Hawk County are back open.

Where new COVID-19 cases in Johnson County reached a daily high of 338 on Aug. 26 — just two days after the start of the UI fall semester and after students were seen crammed in bars without masks — new daily cases have dropped into the 30s and 20s in the last week.

“We are down into 20 cases a day at this point,” Hansen said. “Just to be really frank, I am worried about Sept. 20, which is when that mandate from the governor is set to expire.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Student Regent Zack Leist, enrolled at ISU, conceded some of his peers arrived for the fall semester “in not the right mind-set.”

“But I think now it’s kind of clear what we need to do,” he said, agreeing, “I am a little concerned about 20th … That date is a little concerning to me, and I sure hope from our actions though that it won’t be anything like it was to start the year.”

Hansen said among the issues that hurt the UI — which has reported more than 1,800 COVID-19 cases on campus since Aug. 18 — was the number of students who arrived with the virus.

“I think one of the challenges for us was students arriving on campus positive, but not necessarily even waiting for their test results at home,” she said. “So we had some students that tested at home and then showed up and then said, ‘Oh hey, I’m positive,’ and we had to kind of track that down.”

The high rate of infection, paired with hundreds of student and instructor requests to either learn or teach entirely online, has pushed the UI percentage of undergraduate credit hours happening virtually to 78 percent, according to presidential reports to the board Thursday.

At ISU and UNI, which are reporting percentages by total credit hours, 34 percent and 16 percent of classes are entirely online, respectively.

In response to Regent David Barker’s question of when the campuses might be able to move toward more in-person learning, all three said they’re in no hurry.

UNI President Mark Nook said his campus has space constraints.

“Moving to more in-person instruction is going to be difficult,” Nook said. “We need to continue the physical distancing, and having the classrooms to do that is what really limits that.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

ISU’s Vice President for Student Affairs Toyia Younger said she, too, is encouraged by dropping daily COVID-19 case reports on campus and in the Ames community.

“We don’t want to jump into anything that would ultimately lead to mass spread,” she said.

UI President Bruce Harreld said space isn’t necessary an issue at the UI. But testing is.

“I’m not comfortable that we have the testing capacity and the reagents specifically to allow us to test a large enough percentage of our population,” Harreld said. “We need to get at an infection rate of under 5 percent, and right now — last I checked — I think the county was 12.6 percent. So we’ve got a long way to go.”

Rapid daily tests would be ideal, according to Harreld.

“If you can do the entire population every day — so we do 40,000 tests every day — that’s where we need to get to,” he said. “It’s not like once a week. We need to do this rapidly. This country is way under-testing.”

Absent that capacity, Harreld said the risk is too great to push for more in-person learning.

“There’s so many unknowns with this virus that I don’t know why we would run the risk of rushing back to face-to-face, to be honest with you,” he said. “We’d much rather let everybody choose their level of comfort.”

UI students, faculty and staff have called on the campus to move entirely virtual, and administrators have rejected those requests — saying many still want in-person learning and that much is happening virtually already.

Harreld’s comments Thursday, though, seemed to support the contention that many feel more comfortable learning at a distance.

“While we talk about a lot of students would prefer to have face-to-face, I’m not sure we have good data to support that at all,” he said, noting he teaches a class in a room with capacity for 68. It’s current configured for 30, and far fewer than that attend in person.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Students can pick where they want to be for that class,” he said. “And so far, in our fourth week, the most I’ve had physically in class has been five students out of 30. Twenty-five have preferred to stay wherever they are.”

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

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.