CORONAVIRUS

Iowa public universities cancel spring break

'This change was made in consideration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic'

University of Northern Iowa. (Still from UNI Facebook video)
University of Northern Iowa. (Still from UNI Facebook video)

Iowa’s public universities took the extraordinary step Monday of canceling the storied student rite of spring break next semester, in addition to announcing other measures meant to quell the spread of COVID-19.

The University of Northern Iowa was first to announce the next-term changes, followed by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. All three campuses will begin the spring semester later than planned on Jan. 25 — one week past the original UI start date of Jan. 19 and two weeks past the original UNI and ISU start date of Jan. 11.

“This change was made in consideration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ability to maintain the same number of instruction days while starting one week later,” according to a UI campus message.

When asked whether UNI had ever canceled spring break before, spokesman Steve Schmadeke said officials could not immediately find any record of having done so before.

“Our archivist did find a reference in the ‘Normal Eyte’ college newspaper to spring break happening in March of 1892,” Schmadeke said in answering the question of how long the tradition dates back at UNI.

Despite student, faculty and staff demands across the campuses for officials to move all instruction online for the rest of the fall semester — with campus cases of COVID-19 soaring, particularly at the UI and ISU — officials, so far, have said they won’t.

But all three universities Monday indicated the spring semester will be offered in a similar fashion as the fall — hybrid learning, with some courses offered online, some offered in person, and some using a mix.

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“While the majority of winter 2020 classes will take place online, the university expects that classes for the spring 2021 semester to be offered in similar formats as the current fall semester,” according to the UI campus message.

UI students, faculty, and staff recently held a “sickout,” calling on the campus community to call in sick to protest the ongoing in-person learning — and more 900 signed a pledge to do so, including 672 undergraduate students, 173 graduate students and 15 tenured faculty among others. UI and ISU organizers again are calling for those on their respective campuses to call in sick Tuesday, noting, “We are deeply disturbed by the rampant spread of COVID-19 on our campuses and across the state of Iowa.”

Officials at the three universities have said they’re monitoring a range of metrics to determine whether to shift courses online.

“The university will closely monitor cases of COVID-19 throughout the winter and spring semesters and will take action deemed necessary to help mitigate the transmission of the virus,” according to the UI campus message.

In a campus letter Monday, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said that “our objective is to provide in-person learning, particularly for experiential courses, labs, and studios, while also providing flexibility for students and instructors who are more comfortable with virtual classes.”

The spring semester changes follow an unprecedented fall semester involving high numbers of online courses; isolated and quarantined students who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or been in contact with those who have; and curtailed student life experiences, including welcome programming and football games.

Last spring, the three public universities moved all courses online after spring break and closed residence halls.

In announcing academic calendar changes Monday, UI officials said the winter session will begin as planned Dec. 28 but extend a week later through Jan. 22 — giving students four weeks of mostly online instruction instead of three.

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“Lengthening the winter session will allow for select, high-priority classes to be taught, most of which will be online,” according to UI officials.

Although UNI and ISU started their fall semesters earlier than usual in August, canceled the Labor Day holiday and plan to end the fall term entirely the day before Thanksgiving, the UI kept its fall calendar the same — except to move all classes into virtual mode after Thanksgiving, to avoid bringing students back to campus after holiday travel.

Starting spring classes Jan. 25 means ISU and UNI students will have two full months off unless they choose to enroll in winter learning.

“We are planning for an optional five-week online winter term, featuring a targeted selection of courses, beginning Dec. 14, and ending Jan. 21,” Wintersteen said. “The addition of winter classes will offer students a way to work ahead in meeting their graduation requirements.”

UNI officials outlined the spring changes in a news release touting “early success we have seen” with its changes to the fall calendar.

“These changes will give us the opportunity to further protect our campus community while still holding a full spring semester of on-campus teaching and learning activities,” UNI officials reported. “The modified calendar will also allow us to offer select classes during three-week and six-week winter terms through distance learning.”

Details of those will come through individual departments in their release of the “spring schedule of classes.”

The spring’s final exams at the UI are set for May 10-14. Finals at UNI and ISU are May 3-6.

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

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