IOWA CITY — Not even two weeks into the fall semester, more than 1,000 University of Iowa students have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19 and the campus already has announced tuition relief for those who withdraw from classes this month.
News Wednesday that 220 more UI students were diagnosed with the infection — bringing the total to 1,142 — and 16 employees so far came the same day hundreds of students, faculty and staff pledged to call in sick to protest the university’s refusal to push all its courses online.
In its eighth consecutive day of adding new cases in the triple digits — another 123 Wednesday — Johnson County has become a flashpoint in Iowa’s worsening coronavirus trend. But the home to the UI is hardly alone. Iowa’s public universities in Story and Black Hawk counties are reporting hundreds of positive cases so far.
Iowa State University in Ames has tallied 655 positive students and 10 faculty and staff members. Additionally, 206 ISU students have reported a positive diagnosis from off-campus testing since Aug. 17, and eight faculty and staff have reported off-campus positive results.
Those totals do not include the 175 positive cases identified during mandatory move-in COVID-19 testing.
As of Friday, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls had reported 70 positive cases among students, faculty and staff members.
The high levels of virus activity in Iowa’s university communities has captured the attention of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which on Sunday issued recommendations — some of which the campuses are already doing.
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As one way to deal with the surge in cases, “university towns need a comprehensive plan that scales immediately for testing all returning students with routine surveillance testing to immediately identify new cases and outbreaks and isolate and quarantine,” the White House panel advised.
Yet only ISU required students to be tested before they could move into residence halls. And the universities are relying on students and employees to self-report their positive tests, although the rules for that vary.
At ISU, President Wendy Wintersteen has been clear that self-reporting test results is “required” for those who test positive at any facility outside the Thielen Student Health Center.
“This is critical,” Wintersteen wrote in a campus message this week. “Contacting your instructors or supervisors is not enough.”
But UI officials have said they can’t require this, even though they strongly advise it.
The difference has to do with the institutions’ coordination with local public health agencies, according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.
“Story County Public Health delegated contact tracing to ISU, whereas Johnson County is doing the contact tracing here,” Beck said.
Although the UI doesn’t explicitly require students to self-report positive tests, it does require they cooperate fully and honestly with contact tracing efforts.
“Our language in the student attestation form makes it clear that students are expected to cooperate with Johnson County,” Beck said. “If they don’t, they may face consequences through the code of student life.”
Both ISU and UNI are reporting positivity rates. The UI is not.
Beck cited the varying relationships with county health departments as the reason. “We have access to a different set of data. So some data is not available or is not ours to publish,” she said.
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Josh Lehman, spokesman for the Board of Regents, said the governing body is leaving reporting and testing details up to the universities.
New tuition deadlines
The UI also announced a revised tuition calendar allowing students to get back more of their money if they withdraw from classes later.
Previously, students were responsible for 25 percent of tuition as of Sept. 6; 50 percent by Sept. 13; 75 percent by Sept. 20; and 100 percent by Sept. 27.
Now, students who fully withdraw from the UI before Sept. 13 will be responsible for only 10 percent of their tuition.
They’ll be responsible for a quarter of their tuition before Sept. 20 and half their tuition before Sept. 27. But they must pay full tuition if they withdraw after Oct. 4, according to the revised calendar.
Additionally, the last day to drop a course and save tuition is Sept. 13 instead of Sept. 4.
“In order to provide greater flexibility to students and families, the university is delaying the assessed tuition and fees calendar by one week,” according to a UI campus message Wednesday.
The UI also announced Wednesday that its fall commencement ceremonies will be virtual, just as they were last spring.
UI spring graduates who missed the in-person experience were supposed to have a second shot at it this fall.
“We know how much these ceremonies mean to our students and their families,” according to a UI message. “And while December seems a long way off, we feel it is the right decision to make now to maintain the health and safety of the entire campus community. “We acknowledge the disappointment of our spring 2020 graduates who were unable to attend an in-person spring commencement ceremony and planned to participate in December.
”At this time, we anticipate all 2020 graduates will be able to take part in an on-campus or in-person ceremony in the future.”
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