CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa 'will not be liable' for COVID-19 spread in residence halls

Student contract frees campus from liability

People move their belongings out of Currier Residence Hall during a scheduled move-out from the University of Iowa in Io
People move their belongings out of Currier Residence Hall during a scheduled move-out from the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Students have been told to vacate their dorms and are required to sign up for two-hour time slots to remove their belongings. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With tens of thousands of University of Iowa students expected to reinhabit its shuttered campus this fall, the institution is taking extensive measures to protect both students and itself from the novel coronavirus — including an updated housing contract freeing UI from liability for COVID-19 infections.

In promising to “implement reasonable public health and safety measures regarding infectious disease,” the university abrogates responsibility for COVID-19 spread, according to the 2020-21 housing contract students must sign to live in one of its 10 residence halls.

“University Housing and Dining strongly encourages all individuals to follow the recommended public health guidelines, but it cannot control the behavior of any particular individual,” according to a health and safety clause in the new student contract.

“As a result, the University of Iowa is not and will not be liable for any public health threat to which a student or visitor may be exposed, including but not limited to the transmission of any infectious disease such as COVID-19.”

The contract encourages students and those visiting its dining halls to “practice responsible hygiene habits and other health-related practices,” which the university details in its “Returning to Campus” fall plan. It thus also abdicates responsibility for adverse reactions from or the presence of a foreign body in food or drink bought from a UI dining, convenience, or other retail location.

UI officials said they’re not asking students, faculty and staff to sign waivers before the start of the fall semester.

All three of Iowa’s public universities sent students home mid-March as they closed their respective campuses in response to COVID-19. UI, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa still remain largely quiet, although they’re starting to welcome back faculty and researchers and planning for hybrid learning in the fall, involving both in-person and online instruction.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Much about the fall semester remains unknown — including what portion of courses will happen virtually, whether projected enrollment dips will materialize, and how many students will live in the residence halls.

Although numbers remain in flux, with many students still fuzzy on plans for the unprecedented upcoming semester, the University of Iowa is reporting as of June 1 that 1,305 returning students had room assignments and housing contracts for fall, and 5,356 new students had submitted applications.

UI officials stressed those numbers are in flux and don’t not match projections for the campus’ first-year class. The university’s pre-COVID-19 residence hall capacity was 6,742 students, although it has eliminated triple and four-person rooms for the fall and is saving space for quarantine and self-isolation.

Iowa State, which had a much larger pre-COVID-19 residence hall capacity of 11,423, reported 9,464 “active contracts” as of June 1 — although that number changes daily. Of that total, 5,090 were new ISU students, coming either from high school or another institution.

ISU, like UI, has nixed triple and quad room assignments for fall, and also is reserving quarantine space. Iowa State has not made public its 2020-21 housing contract to date.

UNI has, although its new contract doesn’t mention COVID-19 or liability for coronavirus infections in its residence halls. That school — which had a pre-COVID-19 capacity of nearly 4,000 — as of Tuesday had 3,057 signed contracts to live on campus in the fall.

UNI, unlike its regent peers at Iowa and Iowa State, has not curtailed triple and quad room assignments. Although it is restricting visitors to no more than double the room capacity — so a maximum of four in a double room and no more than eight in one of its four-bedroom apartments.

Other COVID-19-related changes across the respective residence systems vary, but Iowa State — for one — is making all students moving into on-campus housing take a coronavirus test.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

UI President Bruce Harreld hinted at something similar during a recent economic discussion hosted by the Corridor Business Journal, noting, “We are doing testing in our residence halls.” But UI administrators have not spelled out any residence hall-testing mandate in their official fall plan, which notes the university “will have testing available to identify symptomatic cases and to test close contacts of those with confirmed COVID-19.”

Other UI residence hall changes in response to COVID-19 include visitor restrictions — with just one allowed at a time; face covering mandates in public spaces; and social distancing mandates in common spaces like lounges, if they’re even open.

All the campuses are ramping up cleaning and sanitation practices, using Plexiglas barriers where pertinent, and holding virtual meetings when possible.

They also are spacing move-in times and employing other mitigating measures to prevent congestion and potential viral spread.

Iowa State and UNI will be conducting their move-ins earlier than usual — as they’re welcoming back students a week sooner as part of plans to end the semester the day before Thanksgiving and avoid the travel-related risks of returning students to campus in December.

UI is maintaining its original fall semester schedule that extends to Dec. 18, although it’s moving all instruction online after Thanksgiving. That, officials hope, will avoid travel-related risks. Although the campus is keeping its residence halls open after Thanksgiving — for those who rely on it for housing and academic resources.

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

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.