CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa student governments urge fall shift to virtual learning

'No student should be on campus unless absolutely necessary'

The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (The
The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Despite the oft-cited sentiment driving a fall return to campus that students are pining for the traditional college experience, the University of Iowa undergraduate and graduate student governments are asking administrators to make a late change and shift all non-essential learning, activities, and events online for the coming semester.

“We cannot, in good conscience, support in-person classroom learning and full opening of residence halls in the fall 2020 semester amid our current environment,” according to a letter the UI undergraduate, graduate and professional student governments sent to President Bruce Harreld and Interim Provost Kevin Kregel on Tuesday — the same day scores of UI educators aired the same concerns and made the same demand for virtual operations this fall.

“We ask that the University of Iowa move all non-essential in-person learning, activities, and events to a virtual format,” the student leaders wrote. “No student should be on campus unless absolutely necessary, especially when virtual learning options are accessible and efficient.”

UISG leaders alerted fellow students — more than 30,000 — about their letter to the president and provost via mass email Friday, one week before UI residence hall move-in starts and just over two weeks before the institution’s hybrid fall semester is set to resume on-campus instruction.

“Due to current COVID-19 cases locally and statewide, we are advocating to reduce density on campus by moving all non-essential learning and engagement to a virtual format,” according to the student leaders’ Friday email to their peers.

All three of Iowa’s public universities evacuated their respective campuses mid-March to squelch coronavirus spread, pushing courses online and clearing out residence halls. Academics, events, activities, and most other operations remained virtual into the summer — with the institutions only recently instigating phased reopenings involving research, athletics, and other college entities.

As early as April, Board of Regents leadership — along with UI, Iowa State University, and University or Northern Iowa administrators — voiced commitment to resume in-person, on-campus instruction come fall.

Students in their letter cited those earlier hopes and said they shared them.

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“Throughout the summer, we have kept our fingers crossed in hopes that we could safely return to in-person learning this month,” they wrote. “We were excited to return to normalcy — academically and socially.

“However, the persistent increase in COVID-19 cases in Iowa, and specifically Johnson County, has become troubling, especially as most students are scheduled to move back to Iowa City in the coming weeks,” according to the students, who called returning to campus “an alarming prospect.”

Some faculty and staff have amplified that alarm via public petition started Tuesday — the same day the students sent Harreld and Kregel their letter — warning face-to-face instruction would heighten “already dangerous conditions for students, instructors, faculty, and staff.”

“A safe return to face-to-face instruction is impossible due to the limited availability of adequate physical classroom space and the lack of provision for frequent testing, contract tracing, or the medical and logistical support necessary for the safety of all workers on campus,” according to the petition, which had amassed more than 400 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

“The University of Iowa has so far failed to be a responsible community health partner by not doing everything in its power to limit the spread of the coronavirus,” according to the petition.

All three of Iowa’s public universities have varying strategies for resuming in-person instruction safely — with ISU and UNI starting the semester early and ending it before Thanksgiving, and Iowa State requiring all of its 9,000-some residence hall students to get tested before moving in.

UI officials have defending their decision not to require COVID-19 testing before residence hall students move in because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended it — in that it captures just a snapshot, can miss cases, and potentially creates a false sense of security.

In response to the student concerns Friday and a question from The Gazette about whether administrators are considering changing course and going virtual this fall, UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett the campus values student and faculty feedback.

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“With more than 30,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff at the UI, opinions vary regarding how our campus should operate for the fall semester,” she said. “Our goal is to provide as much choice and certainty as possible to our campus community while aligning with guidance from the Board of Regents, State of Iowa; the Iowa Department of Public Health; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

When asked whether Harreld and Kregel have responded to student leaders, Bassett said, “University leadership has been and will continue to be in direct communication with student government leaders regarding their concerns.”

In spelling out their concerns via the letter, UI student government leaders cited a recent student survey showing three in four are worried about getting COVID-19 on campus this fall.

Acknowledging some students rely on UI housing and dining, the letter called for significant residence hall density reduction by allowing only those with “urgent” needs to stay.

Student leaders urged data-driven decision-making in a community where leaders this week expressing fear of the looming migration to Iowa City of thousands of young people from across a COVID-racked country.

Data they cited in pushing the university to move into virtual territory included the rising tally of positive cases, with 47,823 Iowans having tested positive as of Friday, including 566 new positives on just Thursday and 912 total deaths.

“The University of Iowa currently leads the Big Ten Conference in confirmed COVID-19 cases within the athletic department,” according to the letter, which notes UI athletics as of Monday was reporting 33 positive cases of 603 tests, or a 5 percent positivity rate.

Although UI is moving all courses over 50 students online, student leaders — using a national COVID-19 event risk assessment tool — found 50-person in-person classrooms in Johnson County would hold a 61-percent risk of having at least one COVID-positive person present; 25-person classrooms would have a 37-percent risk; and 10-person classrooms would present a 17-percent risk.

Plus, they argue, the disease is disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minority groups.

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“We would be remiss to not highlight this important intersection given the immense progress the University of Iowa needs to make toward diversity, equity, and inclusion — a need amplified by the Black Lives Matter movement and activism by university students, staff, and faculty,” according to the letter, which acknowledged the challenge of changing course so late in the summer.

But doing it now would provide students and their families stability — as opposed to an outbreak-compelled rushed shift online midsemester.

“We believe that it is not a matter of if our community sees a COVID-19 outbreak this fall — it is a matter of when,” according to the letter.

“Even the best possible return to campus plans at the University of Iowa do not negate the fact that statistically speaking, students will become infected with COVID-19, some are likely to die, and others will suffer additional adverse physical and mental health effects in an in-person learning environment.”

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

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