CORONAVIRUS

Seconding University of Iowa instructor concerns, local leader airs fears over 30,000-person influx

UI educators sign pledge, circulate petition for virtual fall classes

The Old Capitol on the Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (Gazette file photo)
The Old Capitol on the Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (Gazette file photo)
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IOWA CITY — A Johnson County supervisor Tuesday — in discussing University of Iowa teacher demands the campus pivot immediately to virtual instruction for fall given pandemic conditions — voiced fear of the looming population surge and what it could mean for her “red zone” community.

“It scares the hell out of me to see 30,000-plus students coming back,” Supervisor Royceann Porter said about UI plans for a hybrid fall semester that prioritizes in-person instruction and reopens the campus, including residence halls.

“When we think about the university saying, ‘We’re going to give them the kits, we’re going to give them the masks, and it’s mandatory that they wear all this to class,’ that’s fine and dandy,” Porter said. “But as soon as they step across the street and go into the restaurants, and the bars, and the bar crawls, and the frat parties … we know that there’s going to be lots of people engaging, and they’re not going to have masks on.

“We can’t depend on the behavior of the students to do the right thing.”

In voicing her concerns, Porter joined nearly 300 UI faculty and staff who’ve signed a pledge to provide “only safe, high-quality online teaching” this fall and Tuesday circulated a public petition calling for UI to offer “online-only instruction” this semester.

In defending their demands, the UI educators cited surging COVID-19 cases, Iowa’s nearly 900 deaths, testing limitations, meager contact-tracing resources, and the absence of a state mask mandate.

“To prevent an even greater public health crisis, we demand that the university limit the number of people returning to Iowa City by offering online-only instruction and requiring remote work whenever possible for Fall 2020,” according to the petition.

Thousands of UI students are scheduled to start moving into residence halls Aug. 14 — in advance of an Aug. 24 semester start. Because Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa are starting their semesters sooner on Aug. 17 — in hopes of ending early before Thanksgiving break — those campuses already have begun their move-in processes.

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At Iowa State, all 9,000-plus residence hall occupants must submit to a COVID-19 test before moving in. UI and UNI students don’t have to be tested before move-in, a decision UI administrators justify by citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

The CDC doesn’t recommend one-time testing, according to a recent UI campus communication, because it provides only a snapshot, can miss cases, and gives a false sense of security. It also requires significant worker, space, equipment and supply resources. Plus, according to UI, “poorly administered mass testing can result in damaged or inconclusive results and excessive false negatives.”

The concerned UI educators cited some of those same reasons in urging an all-virtual semester.

“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.

In response to its concerned employees, UI leadership stressed flexibility this fall for students, faculty and staff — offering options for alternative learning and work arrangements. They also highlighted extensive precautions being taken — from mask mandates to air ventilation upgrades to signage, extra sanitation, dorm visitor restrictions and other new rules or regulations.

Administrators also noted opinions vary, and not everyone agrees virtual education is the best path.

“With more than 30,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff, opinions at the UI vary regarding how our campus should operate for the fall semester,” according to the UI response.

Supervisor Porter, though, said UI could do more. Referencing a recent report putting Iowa on a “red zone” list, Porter said she knows local students planning to leave the state for college who must quarantine in their new communities when they arrive.

“I know three that are going over to New York, who have been told that they need to come down 14 days before school starts because they need to quarantine,” she said. “So our kids are leaving here and having to go and be quarantined, yet we have kids — thousands and thousands of people coming into our city — that are not even being tested, or won’t have to quarantine.

“We don’t know what they have when they get here.”

Porter joined the instructors in calling on the university to act now.

“Now is the time,” she said, asking “why wait” for cases to soar.

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“Two weeks after school starts, check out our numbers, and I know that they’re not going to be good,” Porter said. “We know that this is coming.”

In response to questions about unequal student access to technology and other resources needed to adequately learn online, the UI instructors pushing for a virtual shift said administrators should have been focused on that this summer.

“Maybe the university could provide those things for students and make sure they have access to those things,” said John Jepsen, a graduate instructor and Ph.D. candidate in history. “This is the kind of stuff that they could have been working on all summer long, instead of putting dispensers and silly things throughout the campus, and arrows pointing which direction you can go in and out of doors.”

Acknowledging UI is taking directives from the Board of Regents and has concerns about how staying online could affect the budget, Jepsen said these are unprecedented times.

“Of course we want to see as many students enrolled and taking courses here at the university as possible,” he said. “That said, this is an extraordinary circumstance.”

In the absence of an administrative about-face, Jepsen called on the university’s customers to take matters into their own hands.

“We would call on them, parents and students, to seriously consider whether coming to Iowa City and taking in-person classes is the right decision,” he said.

Time is short, even as some instructors still don’t know whether their courses will meet a 50-person maximum forcing them online or fall under that threshold and require face-to-face instruction. And, despite their demands, none of the instructors still slated for in-person courses have said they’ll refuse to go into the classroom if required.

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But UI associate professor of instruction Megan Knight said the UI window to redirect the fall plan is not yet closed.

“Make an announcement, right now, that we’re going to all online instruction, and then survey every single student who’s enrolled, or who intends to enroll, about exactly what their circumstances are, and then figure out how to get them exactly the equipment they need,” Knight said Tuesday. “Right now, this afternoon, we could start.”

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

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