IOWA CITY — Thousands of University of Iowa students move into the residence halls this week in preparation for tens of thousands to return to class Monday, but administrators in a new campus message warned, “We are prepared to make difficult decisions about the fall semester if necessary.”
That includes shifting from a hybrid model of instruction that prioritizes in-person instruction to one entirely online — where the university moved all courses and programming mid-March as the novel coronavirus began its spread across Iowa.
In UI’s campus message Monday — when hundreds of students began moving into residence halls — officials reported this summer’s planning has involved finalizing metrics administrators will use to decide if the university “needs to alter plans and move classes online before Thanksgiving break.”
UI already is taking everything virtual after that holiday to avoid students returning following high-risk travel. Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa began classes Monday — a week earlier than planned — so they can end the semester the day before Thanksgiving and keep students from returning after traveling.
In listing metrics the UI will consider in deciding whether to shift to virtual instruction sooner than Thanksgiving, officials reported they’ll look at new cases, positivity rates, testing capacity, contact tracing, classroom instruction and space resources, and staff availability for critical functions.
The campus also will consider residence hall space, protective equipment and cleaning inventories, UI Health Care capacity, and cases at other Iowa universities.
Local and state proclamations could dictate whether UI shifts online sooner, as could decisions across Johnson County-area schools and districts — affecting, potentially, child care availability.
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“COVID-19 will continue to be present in the community for the foreseeable future and guidance and information about the pandemic changes rapidly and must be continually monitored,” according to the UI message. “While we are excited about the vaccine trials happening here at our own world-class academic medical center, we are prepared to make difficult decisions about the fall semester if necessary.”
Although the total operating capacity in the UI residence hall system was supposed to top 6,740 this academic year, the university has decreased that to about 5,500 by nixing most triple and four-person rooms.
Some students returning to the residence halls still are living with two or three others in one room — but only by choice and after being given the chance for reassignment, according to Virginia Ibrahim-Olin, director of UI housing administration.
“New students will live in double or single occupancy rooms,” she said. “We have less than 80 returning students who are in triple occupancy or quad occupancy rooms.”
As move-in continues throughout the week — with COVID-19-mitigation measures like mandated masks, reduced helpers, and socially distanced scheduling — officials are expecting to add just under 1,000 students to its halls a day.
The campus is continuing to get new requests from students wanting to live in the dorms, along with new requests from those wanting out. The university is working with individual students who have new reasons to want out of their contracts — including updated course schedules that now have all their classes online.
To test or not?
Although the UI is not making students get tested for COVID-19 before moving into its residence halls, like Iowa State is doing, the campus is offering testing for students, faculty, and staff with symptoms or who’ve been in contact with a positive case. And UI is making space available in most of its halls for students required to isolate or quarantine, according to Von Stange, assistant vice president for student life and senior director of University Housing and Dining.
“We have isolation and quarantine housing in nearly every building,” he said. “If we have to isolate, or we have to put them in quarantine, we want them to stay on the same side of the river. That is our goal.”
If a student tests positive, contact tracers will notify others who might be affected. But, Stange said, the university won’t alert an entire hall or floor if one of its residents tests positive — due to medical privacy laws.
“The only people who will know is obviously the roommate because of the contact tracing,” Stange said. “But other than that, we’re not sending out notices to the floor or anything.”
In justifying his institution’s decision not to test students before move-in, Stange said UI is following federal and state guidance that advises against point-in-time diagnostic testing that can create a false sense of security.
Iowa State is using its COVID-19 test results to promptly identify and isolate students who might be asymptomatic. But UI freshman Karenna Larson, 18, of Ankeny, said she’s comfortable with the UI decision not to test.
“Because they can contract it like 10 minutes after they get tested and it wouldn’t show up,” she said.
Larson believes most UI students will be responsible and wear face coverings. And with most of her courses online, she wishes more were in person “because it’s my first year.” Larson also wishes fall football hadn’t been canceled.
“I’m upset,” she said. “I wish they were having it.”
UI freshmen Lindsay Bell, 18, and Lucas Absler, 18, told The Gazette they’re enjoying their freshmen experience so far — even if it is a little atypical.
“It’s hard to feel loss when you haven’t experienced it before,” Absler said. “It’s hard to know what you’re missing if you haven’t experienced it.”
Absler said he is a little nervous, when it comes to personal safety. But Bell said she’s been encouraged so far.
“I think you’re always going to get those people that don’t (follow the rules),” Bell said. “But the majority, from what we’ve seen … most people are wearing masks and people are being respectful.”
Administrators mentioned face covering mandates and enforcement in their message Monday.
“Our primary goal is for voluntary compliance with this effort,” according to the message. “However, if absolutely necessary, repeated failure to comply with these requirements may be addressed through University Human Resources and/or the Office of Student Accountability.”
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In making sure students, faculty and staff know the expectations, they’ve been distributed protective equipment kits, mandated COVID-19-specific training, and offered plenty of reminders via campus communications, town halls and signage.
Students, faculty and staff have been asked “to acknowledge the expectations in writing.”
And UI freshman Alex Heston, 18, said while moving in Monday she’s excited to be on campus for her first fall away — even if it is a bit non-traditional.
“I think they’re taking all the necessary precautions,” Heston said.
She, like the rest of this year’s incoming freshmen, won’t get the traditional orientation and welcome experience. At UI, freshmen typically convene for convocation on the Pentacrest, pose for a class picture in the shape of an “I” in Kinnick Stadium, mingle for a massive after party, and then collectively mark the end of summer with a president’s block party.
“I think all of ‘On Iowa’ is new this year, and it doesn’t really resemble much of what we have done in the past, just because our event guidelines are just so different than they have been,” UI Director of Orientation Service Tina Arthur said of the university’s welcome programming.
But while UI had to punt its signature welcome events aimed at connecting freshmen, celebrating their arrival, and fostering a sense of community — the “On Iowa” team is employing a COVID-19 version of activities involving smaller groups on virtual platforms.
“I think our students are excited to have an opportunity, even if it’s a small group and they’re spread out over the whole week, they’re excited to meet new folks,” she said.
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