IOWA CITY — On the first day of a starkly-different pandemic-plagued fall semester, the University of Iowa on Monday reported 107 students and four employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
Those numbers reflect only those students and employees who have self-reported positive tests since Aug. 18 — as officials have said they can’t make individuals report due to health privacy laws. And some faculty members told The Gazette on Monday that already many students were emailing to say they can’t make it to their in-person classes this week due to COVID-19-related reasons.
Additionally, some UI welcome leaders with the “On Iowa” program on Sunday received a message alerting them that someone they shared an orientation shift with had tested positive and they should watch for symptoms.
The university will publish “weekly snapshots” of self-reported COVID-19 cases among students, faculty, and staff — with student employees being counted only in the student category.
Officials noted in reporting Monday’s COVID-19 tally, that UI has more than 30,000 students and nearly 30,000 employees — many of whom are working or learning remotely.
Among those infected students, eight are characterized as “residence hall students in self-isolation.” The university has made space on its campus for isolation and quarantine, which is reserved for those who might have been exposed to COVID-19.
The university reported 19 residence hall students are in quarantine.
One out-of-state student last week reported an ‘awful’ isolation experience on the UI campus — recounting little help in moving her belongings after a lengthy testing process. She reported a filthy isolation room, having a panic attack, and being told to keep her experience secret, among other things.
UI officials have since apologized and promised to do better.
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Iowa State University, which began its semester last week on Aug. 17, reported finding 175 positive COVID-19 cases upon move-in to its residence halls — as it was the only one of Iowa’s three regent institutions to require pre-move-in testing.
Iowa State will be releasing another COVID-19 numbers update early this week.
The University of Northern Iowa has not said whether it will update the public on its self-reported cases.
New coronavirus cases in Iowa for the last 24-hour period, as of 11 a.m. Monday, showed Johnson County — home to UI — added 86 new cases, its second-ever highest after Sunday’s record 90 and also the most of any other county in the state Monday.
Black Hawk County, home to UNI, added 12 new cases. Story County, home to ISU, added six new cases. All three counties are in the state’s Top 10 for total cases.
UI Hospitals and Clinics on Monday reported 22 adult inpatients and a 48 percent positive COVID-19 test rate, well above its 14 percent average to date.
It has two pediatric inpatients, and reported four more UIHC employees tested positive Sunday — bringing the employee total to date to 341.
Throughout the semester, all three of Iowa’s public universities are offering testing for students, faculty, and staff who are symptomatic or who have been in contact with a confirmed case.
Students are allowed to isolate either in space reserved in residence halls or at home.
The UI’s 111 campus-COVID-cases report comes after a weekend of maskless partying in the downtown Iowa City bars, which did not appear to be enforcing social distancing regulations inside their establishments. While masks were required to get in many of them, few patrons appeared to be wearing masks once they passed through the door — despite city and Johnson County mask mandates.
ISU and UNI students also have been captured on camera partying in tight quarters and in bars.
One UNI student provided The Gazette photos of large crowds of students mingling late at night over the weekend outside popular bars in the College Hill area.
In a Monday morning video message to campus, a masked UI President Bruce Harreld said his administration decided to offer students the choice to take all their courses online or opt for some in-person instruction.
“That’s your choice,” he said. “It’s also your choice to do the right thing. If you’re going to be on campus or anywhere else in our community, wear the mask. Socially distance. Don’t get into large crowds. Avoid them as much as possible.”
Harreld did not directly address large parties and the bar scene, which ISU President Wendy Wintersteen did Friday after seeing images of ISU students gathering and partying in Ames.
“Students who engage in irresponsible behavior, including attending large gatherings or parties that violate physical distancing and face covering rules, will be subject to university discipline, and could lead to suspension,” Wintersteen said, in a letter that debuted a new and stricter social gathering policy requiring face coverings and social distancing at all on- and off-campus gatherings involving students.
The primary goal for compliance with the UI mask and distancing guidance is that it be voluntary, with only severe violations punished through the Office of Student Accountability.
But Harreld’s campus message Monday also referenced the countless hours faculty and staff this summer spent prepping for a safe return this fall — not to mention the millions spent, compounding tens of millions UI has lost to date from COVID-19.
“As you know, universities like ours have recently moved instruction online when students failed to follow their university and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission,” Harreld said. “To that end, each of you chose to be here, and now the choices you make as an individual will determine the outcome for everyone.”
UI junior Sonali Patel, who has all online classes this fall, on Monday told The Gazette she doesn’t expect the in-person experience to last too long this fall.
“There’s a lot of risk with freshmen and moving back to the dorms,” Patel said, noting she drove through downtown over the weekend to see how many were out.
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“A lot,” she said. “It was as if there was nothing happening … It’s really bad.”
UNI senior Isaac Vos said he just wants to focus on getting the most of his money this fall in pursuit of his upcoming graduation.
“That’s why I’m so adamant about them following the rules — because I don’t want my senior year to be shortened by the actions of these students,” Vos said.
But other UI freshman — like 19-year-old Charlie Ashley of Naperville, Ill. — told The Gazette they’re not worried and feel relatively safe.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” said Ashley, who lives in Currier Residence Hall with one roommate and has heard only “speculation” about possible illness in his dorm.
Ashley said he’s not too worried about becoming sick.
“I’m just enjoying and staying safe and following the protocols.”
UI administrators have given instructors advice for how to create a “welcoming campus,” urging those teaching online courses to “make a special effort to help your students feel connected.”
Those teaching in-person courses are asked to reinforce policies and practices like reminding students to use provided supplies to clean their seating area; asking them to enter and exit classrooms according to directional signs; and urging them to stay socially distanced.
Instructors also are asked to make students sit in the same spot all semester and write down names of those nearby to assist in contact tracing efforts. And UI administrators want instructors to stress to their students the importance of self-reporting a COVID-19 case.
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Faculty and staff will receive daily reports — by class section — of “students who may not be able to attend in-person classes and/or may be absent from in-person/hybrid/online classes.” They are urged to be flexible with those students and not to seek medical documentation.
“Due to privacy concerns, do not notify other students in the class that a student may be absent,” according to UI guidance. “If the individual student chooses to notify others, they may do so.”
One UI instructor who received notification of a positive case among her students Sunday — even before classes began Monday — raised concerns to The Gazette about how keeping that information secret might affect other students in her class throughout the semester.
“This is dangerous and it should be known by the larger community that this is the UI’s official stance on the matter,” she said.
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