CORONAVIRUS

Iowa regent universities plan phased campus returns

Schools eye coronavirus-changes for fall in-person instruction

University of Iowa students move out of Burge Residence Hall on March 19 after the UI started shutting down the campus a
University of Iowa students move out of Burge Residence Hall on March 19 after the UI started shutting down the campus and switching to virtual instruction. Now UI teams are looking in how students could return to campus this fall. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With the spring semester officially wrapped up at Iowa’s public universities, and with a lot to figure out to safely and successfully resume in-person instruction in the fall, all three campuses are planning phased re-openings in the coming weeks.

University of Iowa Health Care, which has a different and more urgent mission in this new coronavirus-affected landscape than its academic peers, is going first by recalling some telecommuting employees back to campus “immediately,” according to a UIHC message Monday.

And while many UIHC employees who’ve been working remotely will keep doing so in the short term, the operation’s goal is to have everyone back — to some degree — by July 1.

“Phase three will be a return to ‘new normal’ with full staff, while continuing to make use of telework, innovative scheduling, and other measures to maintain social distancing and flexibility,” according to the email. “Target date is July 1, 2020.”

UIHC — like many health care providers nationally — scaled down some operations, like elective procedures and in-person clinic visits, as it ramped up its COVID-19 response and rolled out new screening procedures and safety protocols.

With Gov. Kim Reynolds recently easing restrictions on health care services — amid broader reopening guidelines for an array of businesses — UIHC is calling back some sidelined workers.

First to return include those who provide patient care and support services; maintenance, facilities and janitorial workers; and other administrative employees.

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Additionally, staff might be recalled to enlist in a “labor pool.” If “meaningful and productive work” isn’t available in an employee’s current position or through reassignment through the labor pool, workers will be required to use vacation leave or comp time to continue getting paid.

“Staff who decline to participate in the labor pool will be required to utilize vacation, accrued compensatory time, or unpaid leave,” according to the UIHC message.

Ramping up on-campus work through more surgical and clinical operations will continue into a second phase, with supervisors possibly staggering return dates and creating flexible schedules “to maintain appropriate social distancing standards.”

“We fully expect that, over time, more and more staff will return to their normal work location until we achieve full, in-person operations at a date in the future,” wrote UI Vice President for Medical Affairs Brooks Jackson and UIHC Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekaran.

UIHC administrators said all their precautions will persist, including employee screening, social distancing, personal protective equipment standards and proper hand hygiene mandates.

Faculty, staff return

On the academic and research side, on-campus activities and operations will resume more slowly, with UI, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa administrators recently announcing most employees will keep working remotely — for now.

The campuses have warned of tight budgets and potential pay cuts or reassignment, with UI President Bruce Harreld recently indicating that — starting Monday — his institution would resume “regular pay practices,” a redirection after the campus continued paying workers through the end of the spring semester even if they were unable to do their jobs.

With the UI facing $70 million in losses from the pandemic, Harreld said employees without meaningful work — like those at UIHC — will be asked to register for a “temporary redeployment pool,” use paid vacation leave, comp time or unpaid leave.

In a message Friday from Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz, campus leadership said it didn’t yet have a date for bringing telecommuting employees back but that a “critical incident management team” is creating a plan to do so.

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UNI leadership, likewise, said employees should keep working remotely until further notice — which could come in a few weeks.

“While we do not know when the campus will reopen, the university will continue to allow employees to telework, based on supervisor approval, until June 15,” the UNI message said.

And ISU President Wendy Wintersteen in a recent message said most employees won’t return to their normal work site until June 1 — though some will. As faculty and staff reinhabit campus, various work spaces and units will receive “tool kits” for maintaining health and safety.

Starting June 1, all ISU faculty and staff — unless unable for some reason — will be expected to wear a face covering or shield when in the presence of others and where social distancing is impractical.

Fall semester

Although Iowa’s three public universities have released few details about the biggest question of whether and how students would return to campus this fall, they have unveiled the efforts they’re putting into making that happen.

All three have created teams tasked with considering all aspects of returning to campus.

UI leaders last week reaffirmed “plans to resume face-to-face instruction for the fall 2020 semester.” To make that happen, the university has formed six planning teams that meet daily to determine “how to implement recommended best practices for limiting exposure to COVID-19 in a campus setting.”

Questions the teams aim to answer include, among others, how to safely house students in residence halls; how to offer face-to-face instruction while social distancing; how to implement social distancing in communal settings like dining halls and libraries; and whether to use a mixture of in-person and virtual instruction.

The plan is to share the strategies in June.

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

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