CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa students 'screaming, wanting to come back'

But leaders they'll need to change behaviors to stay healthy

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — After last week unveiling that a plan to safely return 30,000-plus students to campus this fall includes switching to online-only classes after Thanksgiving, a University of Iowa leader said Wednesday the school plans to resume offering in-person classes in spring 2021.

Of course, administrators warned during a live online update Wednesday afternoon, much remains unknown about how the coronavirus pandemic will progress in the coming months on reopened campuses like the UI — which in March sent home over 30,600 students and directed faculty and staff to teach the remainder of the term virtually.

“People worry about the flu curve, and when that introduces; where will we be with either second or third waves, if that happens with COVID; and a vaccine and medicines,” Rod Lehnertz, senior vice president of UI Finance and Operations, said during the campus update.

“It’s a very unpredictable future at this point. But the university does, at this point, plan to have face-to-face,” he said in response to a question about spring 2021. “We will continually evaluate backup options as we go into, through, and beyond the fall semester.”

UI President Bruce Harreld said during the forum that “our students are screaming, wanting to come back.”

“We must get back to running our residence halls,” he said. “But we really need their help. Because not only all of us, but all of them, are also going to need to change their behavior.”

Spelling out in broad strokes some of those changes, Harreld and Lehnertz pulled highlights of the return-to-campus plan released last week, including required use of masks, social distancing and new safety protocols and procedures for students, faculty and staff.

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“Some of you may be wondering about this issue of wearing masks and how we change some of the behaviors,” Harreld said. “Will the students come along? And I will just simply say, they have to come along so we keep the whole campus safe.”

Between now and the start of classes Aug. 24, the UI is holding a series of student, faculty and staff trainings on expectations for the fall. The leaders Wednesday didn’t talk about enforcement, should students rebuff face covering requirements, for example.

The campus plan does, however, mention use of a student agreement “regarding expectations for compliance” before starting the fall semester. And the plan reports the UI Code of Student Life includes rules and procedures “regarding student behavior, expectations, and accountability that help reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Iowa’s other public universities — Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — also last spring curtailed in-person instruction, kept courses online over the summer and plan to bring students back in the fall — although under an academic calendar that starts and ends the fall semester earlier.

UI leaders Wednesday prided themselves for charting their own course for an unprecedented return, not just mimicking what other schools around the county have decided.

“In my opinion, I think many of our peers have not done that very well, as it relates to reopening,” Harreld said. “Instead, they seem to be moving like lemmings. And just because one university does something, it must be OK — because they clearly must have thought it through — and so then a second institution picks it up and does something similar.”

But Harreld stressed impact from the virus is not the same from coast to coast — or even across Iowa — and his campus’ approach mirrors that.

“Just because one institution decided to go online for the entire year, we didn’t emulate that,” he said. “We didn’t decide that our calendar should be just the same as other institutions.

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“We specifically got people together and empowered a group of these experts from across our campus to work through every nuance and specifically address how the University of Iowa should reopen,” he said. “Not the entire regential system. Not the privates in Iowa. Not Notre Dame. Not Purdue. Not Indiana. But Iowa.”

In announcing plans to return students for fall, ISU earlier this month said it would bring students back a week early, keep them in class on Labor Day and truncate finals week to end the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

Hours later, UNI said it would follow the same calendar — with officials noting they wanted to avoid bringing students back to campus after risky holiday travel.

The UI a week later announced it would follow its original schedule — starting classes Aug. 24 and ending fall finals week Dec. 18. But its post-Thanksgiving portion would go online.

UI officials said Wednesday that although the residence hall system will remain open for students needing to stay, moving courses online will avoid the potential for more COVID-19 travel-related spread.

And, Harreld said, keeping the semester start where it was accommodates student summer employment.

“The one thing we heard over and over again from a number of our students was that they now have summer internships or summer jobs, and so moving the start of class up a week or two just seemed to be incredibly economically disruptive to some,” Harreld said.

The campus update came less than an hour after Harreld participated in an economic review panel hosted by the Corridor Business Journal.

Although UI’s fall plan is not specific on health screening details, Harreld said during the panel his campus will conduct testing in residence halls.

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Harreld also said his campus is testing football players daily. If one were to test positive, that means eight or more others would need to be in isolated — making quarantine math somewhat complicated, especially when officials think about packing stadiums and arenas with fans.

He expected that the UI will offer some sort of athletics this coming academic year but said the experience will be different — like a shortened season, perhaps.

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

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