CORONAVIRUS

How will Iowa universities limit coronavirus spread? Relying heavily on student, staff compliance

Faculty, staff, students must commit: 'I have read, understand, and am willing to follow the procedures'

A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on F
A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on Friday, April 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public universities preparing to reopen for fall — bringing back to campus tens of thousands of students next month, even as COVID-19 cases surge — are relying heavily on faculty, staff, and student behavior to make it happen safely.

In that employees are returning first — with phased reopenings planned across the three campuses this summer — many are undergoing new coronavirus training and being asked to commit to compliance.

“By checking this box, I acknowledge that I have read, understand, and am willing to follow the procedures detailed in this document so that I can do my part to lower the risk to myself and others on campus,” according to a new UI “employee health and safety” commitment form.

Students will be asked to commit to similar documented COVID-19 procedures, including wearing face coverings in all university buildings when social distancing isn’t possible; maintaining 6 feet of separation as much as possible; frequently washing and sanitizing hands; and self-isolating if coronavirus symptoms present.

Per the document, employees should inform human resources and leave work if they become ill. Anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 must self-isolate until they’ve gone three days fever-free, have improved symptoms, and have allowed at least 10 days to lapse since symptoms first appeared.

‘Cooperate fully’

The faculty, staff and student commitment — which comes as a sort of answer to oft-asked questions about safety rules enforcement and compliance — states UI community members also must “cooperate fully and honestly with contact tracing efforts to determine whether I might have exposed others to COVID-19 in or outside the workplace.”

The document commits anyone identified as having been in contact with a positive COVID-19 case to get tested and self-isolate. It also asks anyone who suspects he or she has been exposed to report the potential contact to a campus representative and cooperate with testing, isolation and tracing.

“We will utilize a student agreement regarding expectations for compliance similar to the employee agreement that requires submission before the start of the fall 2020 semester, to increase accountability,” UI Dean of Students Angie Reams said in recent UI presentation about fall plans. “This agreement will be delivered in combination with the training that will be provided to students starting in August.”

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Reams in that presentation said the student agreement will be administered in combination with training in August, and she stressed enforcement will be community-based and peer-focused.

“Enforcement of the expectations will be achieved primarily through education, awareness, and providing support to those who attempt to fulfill the procedures required to return to campus,” she said. “The university’s primary goal is to achieve a voluntary compliance with COVID-19-related expectations … We intend for enforcement to be a positive initial experience highlighting a healthy campus culture and instilling a culture of peer-to-peer empowerment.”

‘Community-based compliance’

Among other university safety mandates affecting all aspects of campus life is limiting residence hall visitors to one at a time per resident. But UI Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen acknowledged the university doesn’t have a way to monitor everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“This is going to be a community-based compliance system,” Hansen said during one of the recent UI return-for-fall presentations. “Residents will be educated about escorting their guests to their room, and we’ll deal individually with any violations of those policies.”

UI officials Monday reiterated in stronger terms the face-covering mandate — reporting in a campus message, “You must wear applicable face coverings” when you’re on campus and not in a private office or residence hall room.

Iowa State University also recently mandated face coverings — which the institutions are providing to students in a welcome-back-to-campus safety kit and also through on-site stations.

“Face coverings are a key element of our ‘new normal,’” Wintersteen recently shared in a campus communication, adding. “We do not want face coverings to become a source of conflict on our campus.

“Creating positive reinforcement regarding wearing face coverings is the best method to encourage compliance,” she said. “Where this does not work, enforcement policies and procedures, which are currently being formed, will be applied.”

In a Winstersteen message this week, she laid out more fall plans for undergraduate and graduate students, including that they all have laptop computers or other mobile device appropriate to their learning needs.

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The mandate aims to serve students by, among other things, improving their access to online course content; preparing them for success in a fluid, hybrid learning environment that could quickly shift; and reducing the risk of spread through shared computers in labs that will be closed this fall.

For those without laptops, loaners are available, according to Wintersteen’s message.

University of Northern Iowa has its own set of trainings and mandates, including required face coverings in campus buildings where social distancing can’t be maintained.

And with UNI and Iowa State planning to start the fall semester early on Aug. 17, both aim to have their campuses and departments back open Aug. 3.

At Iowa State, that involves staggered worksite schedules and some continued telecommuting, in some cases. At UNI, it requires new employee COVID-19 training.

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

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