CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's public universities to move quickly toward virtual instruction amid COVID-19 fears

Grinnell College sending students home for the rest of the semester

Iowa map (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Iowa map (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

As cases of the novel coronavirus continued to spread Tuesday in Iowa, the Board of Regents ordered its three public universities to “move as quickly as possible” toward delivering instruction to students online.

The directive from Regents President Mike Richards did not provide details about what that means for the tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff in the university system — including whether they’ll be told to leave campus including vacating the residence halls before the spring semester ends with finals week and commencement ceremonies in May.

More details about how each campus will handle the rest of this semester will be provided no later than 8 a.m. Thursday, according to Richards’ statement.

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“It is important for students, faculty, and staff to prepare for this eventuality this week prior to spring break,” he said in the statement.

The number of presumed positive COVID-19 cases in Iowa has grown to 13, state health officials announced late Tuesday.

The five more people who tested positive — still to be confirmed by federal officials — are among the same group that went on a cruise beginning in mid-February in Egypt. That means 12 of the 13 people in Iowa who have tested positive are in Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa and its 31,240 students. The other person is in western Iowa.

Richards also announced Tuesday that the board is extending its ban on university-sponsored international travel until further notice and until conditions improve. The university system already canceled study abroad programming in heavily-impacted countries and halted travel, including for those about to embark on spring break study-abroad experiences.

For domestic university-related travel, the board is leaving that up to each institution.

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“However, the board will continue to evaluate daily and its current recommendation is to avoid areas with high numbers of identified cases of COVID-19,” Richards said.

Earlier this week, UI officials said the first three cases in Johnson County were not connected to campus. It hasn’t issued an update since Sunday.

Before the regents’ announcement Tuesday, Central Iowa’s private Grinnell College became the state’s first higher education institution to send students home for the rest of the semester due to the coronavirus.

In a message to his campus, Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington directed all students to “make plans to go home for spring break and finish the semester there.”

Spring break for Grinnell begins March 14 — as it does for many other campuses, including the UI, Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Grinnell’s Kington said all students there should be off campus by March 23.

“Because the situation is changing so rapidly, for the good of our campus and city community, we feel compelled to move forward with plans to prevent or slow the transmission of the virus as best we can, and mitigate its risks once it comes to our community,” Kington wrote.

“We are cognizant that the close living quarters of a college campus create an environment that has a particularly high risk of transmission and are unwilling to put our most vulnerable community members at risk.”

Grinnell also is canceling all athletic events, practices and competitions for the rest of the semester. And it’s considering canceling its commencement ceremony, set for May 18.

Grinnell’s enrollment is about 1,700 students.

Iowa’s three public universities combined have more than 75,000 students — including nearly 20,000 who live in the dorms. Current rates for a standard double room without air conditioning and a meal plan top $9,000. A recent report cataloging the campuses’ economic impact to their communities found a $232.9 million student spending impact and a $38.1 million visitor spending impact in the 2017-18 budget year.

Many students are on scholarships and graduation plans. Any academic delays potentially extend their time to graduation and thus their total collegiate expenses.

It’s unclear whether Richards’ directive will pertain to the UI College of Medicine, which has students and faculty who double as researchers, clinician, and physicians working in the UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Officials with the UI Hospitals and Clinics declined to comment at a news conference on what the move may mean for their institution. However, UIHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Brennan said officials are having serious conversations about what events should go on as planned.

“The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is looking at every event that is scheduled that is elective, and really looking at the people that are invited or expected to attend,” she said. “If they are likely predominantly older patients, then we are considering canceling because (the events) are elective and can be postponed.”

The number of Iowa residents enrolled on the regent campuses far outpaces out-of-state and international students. That means if asked to return home, most would stay in Iowa.

Grinnell, as it sends students home, is making everyone share his or her plans to leave campus via an emailed form from its Division of Student Affairs.

“All students must fill out this form,” according to Kington.

Grinnell students with exceptional reasons to stay on campus can petition to remain.

“We encourage students to take as many of their belongings as possible,” according to Kington. “Particularly the items and materials they need to continue their studies remotely after the break. A subsequent notice to students will provide more information about packing and moving support.”

Classes will continue as scheduled through the end of this week.

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In preparing for distance learning to begin March 30 — after spring break — faculty will receive information and support for online instruction, and administrators will share guidance on new policies that will impact daily operations.

“We will take care that students bear no undue burden based on their status,” according to Kington. “Including financial need. More information on how the College will address this will be forthcoming.”

Grinnell’s administrative offices will stay open, as will its libraries. Officials are still assessing the possibilities of keeping other buildings open.

Like Iowa’s public universities, Grinnell also has barred college-sponsored international travel and on Tuesday expanded those restrictions to include all college-sponsored domestic travel in- or outbound through May 15.

Although Grinnell is planning town hall sessions for Wednesday to share more information and answer questions, it also is in the process of “instituting a series of policies and practices based on the concept of social distancing.”

The goal of those practices is to decrease the need and opportunity for community members to gather in large groups or spend extended periods of time together.

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

Michaela Ramm of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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