Despite protests, undergraduate and graduate student government letters, public petitions, and faculty and staff calls for the University of Iowa to shift its hybrid fall semester entirely online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators Monday reiterated plans to bring back to campus tens of thousands of students in two weeks.
At socially-distanced tables in a largely empty Iowa Memorial Union, UI vice presidents, its interim provost and its campus health officer answered questions about what could prompt the institution to move everyone back online, where instruction has remained since mid-March.
UI Campus Health Officer Dan Fick said the university is in the process of finalizing a “broad range of metrics” that will involve virus activity, the university’s ability to test and trace infections, isolate and quarantine the infected, residence hall capacity, statewide metrics, and local school district challenges, for example.
“We’re in the process of finalizing our campus-wide metrics the university will be using,” Fick said. “When we have those metrics, they’ll be available for campus and public review.”
When asked whether UI administrators have seriously considered changing its hybrid plans for fall — given protests outside the building Monday morning, open letters to administrators from students, faculty and staff, calls from community leaders, and hundreds of signatures on a public petition — UI Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz stressed choice is key to its semester plans. And he said they’ve used “shared governance” in making decisions.
“Keep in mind that we have more than 30,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff, so the range of opinions or positions or feedback or concerns are many, and all of them matter to us,” Lehnertz said.
“Our goal is to make sure that we provide as much choice and as much certainty as we’re able in this environment, while aligning to the Board of Regents and state of Iowa objectives.”
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Board of Regents leadership in April promised to return for fall in-person instruction, following the swift spring shift online. Acknowledging students and families each have unique personal circumstances, Lehnertz said, “We want to provide choice.”
“We’re working with each of those in maximizing opportunities to continue to learn here via an online or hybrid format or, for many, face to face,” he said.
UI Interim Provost Kevin Kregel — when asked about the process of opting out of in-person instruction for faculty and staff — said employees must fill out a form that’s evaluated by human resources.
“There are a whole set of accommodations, conditions and situations that would allow individuals to be assigned, say, to an online course,” he said. “We’re actively engaging in those processes right now with both faculty, other instructors, and graduate” teaching assistants.
Circumstances warranting a waiver to teach online could include pre-existing conditions or high-risk family situations, he said. Pressed on whether an instructor without any pre-existing conditions, high-risk household circumstances, or other needs justifying isolation or quarantine can simply choose to teach online due only to safety-related preference, Kregel said, “That is a decision that would be discussed with the individual, as well as their department chair.
“So there are processes where we discussing what an individual’s options are for the fall semester.”
After last week’s letter calling for a virtual semester from the UI undergraduate, graduate and professional student governments, social media erupted over the weekend regarding an email exchange one UI student said she had with UI President Bruce Harreld.
In screenshots of the exchange, Hannah Zadeh — listed in the UI directory as an undergraduate teaching assistant — asked Harreld to listen to appeals from student leaders and move away from in-person learning this fall.
Harreld responded, according to the shared email exchange, by stressing that, “Everyone has a choice.”
“If you don’t feel comfortable, stay home,” he wrote, according to the shared exchange. “A vocal few shouldn’t remove the right of choice for all the rest of our community.”
Zadeh pressed him, asking whether the Iowa City community has a choice? Or whether teaching assistants have a choice? Harreld reiterated everyone has a choice, and he said the university has been in touch with Iowa City leadership regularly.
In response to her redoubled concerns that not everyone is comfortable with the university’s fall-return plan, Harreld said, “People aren’t comfortable because they have determined for themselves what we are doing.
“This is all about choice,” he wrote. “Please do what is best for you and please resist imposing your choice on others.”
Students voiced concern about that exchange and about Harreld’s lack of physical presence on campus this summer, including during a protest before Monday morning’s news conference.
“President Harreld will be coming, he teaches a course at the university, and is planning his return for the fall semester,” Lehnertz said in response to questions about Harreld, noting the president has been very engaged in the campus and decision-making virtually, as everyone has become more familiar with distanced communication.
“So you’re saying he can run a university virtually, but we have to have in-person classes? Doesn’t that seem a little silly?” UI graduate student John Jepsen asked Lehnertz. “There are two standards, right? One for all of you administrators and then another standard for graduate students and for undergrads taking classes?”
Lehnertz said the university is weighing who needs to be on campus and who doesn’t.
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“Many of us are on campus and working on campus, but doing so according to the protocol,” he said.
In addressing concerns about testing, and why the university is opting against checking every student moving into its residence halls in the coming weeks for COVID-19, officials stressed that goes against federal and state guidance — in that it can create a false sense of security, can produce inaccurate results, and requires significant resources, regarding supplies, equipment, staff and space.
Campus Health Officer Fick said the cost is about $100 per test.
“Even tests that are very good, when the incidence of the disease is very small, you run the risk of having a large number of false positives,” Fick said.
“And then there are consequences to that.”
Mass testing also risks “missing a lot of students that are early in the infection,” which is why Fick said the campus is focused on other mitigation measures, like face coverings, distancing, sanitizing and other measures.
When asked what makes UI different from Iowa State University — which is testing all its residence hall students and found 66 positive cases in its first week of move-in, allowing the campus to isolate, contact trace, and quarantine those affected — UI administrators said no two schools are the same.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong,” Fick said. “There’s no two institutions that are using the same exact strategies.”
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