This fall on Iowa college campuses may look more like it did in 2019 than 2020. ISU, UNI, UI prep their plans.
Full classrooms and dining halls, freshmen orientation and Greek life rush that looks more like it did before the COVID-19 pandemic — Iowa State University hopes these and other aspects of college life will be back to normal or a "new normal" this fall, according to the leader of a committee that will coordinate those decisions.
The beginning of the academic year last fall at ISU included two weeks of staggered move-in, adjusted orientation programs and modifications to furniture and campus spaces to encourage physical distancing.
All three of Iowa's large public universities are looking at plans for fall 2021 that are hoped to instead be much more comparable to fall 2019 — a return to campuses with in-person classes for students and faculty as the default, and activities and gatherings that look like they did pre-pandemic.
ISU: Decisions yet to be made on masks, but vision is 'there would not be social distancing in a classroom'
ISU President Wendy Wintersteen told students, faculty and staff in an announcement last week that she's looking forward to a "new normal" for the upcoming academic year, with in-person classes, labs, studios, residence, dining, student activities and campus events returning "to pre-pandemic levels."
Wintersteen said what that looks like would be based on "appropriate health practices" and the assumption that vaccines would be widely available.
U.S. President Joe Biden told Americans in an address on the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic that states, territories and tribes should make all adults eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines by May 1.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced this week that all Iowa adults would be eligible for vaccine April 5, if supply increases as expected.
John Lawrence — who leads the ISU Moving Forward Coordinating Committee that will guide plans for the fall — said the university will work with Story County Public Health to determine future vaccine availability on campus, as the agency controls allotment of vaccine the county receives from the state.
Thielen Student Health Center and Story County Public Health have partnered to vaccinate eligible students and staff. For the moment, after ISU employees over the age of 72 have been given the opportunity to be vaccinated, employees and students between the ages of 65 and 72 will be contacted for their chance as availability allows.
Lawrence, who is also ISU's vice president for extension and outreach, said while he hoped most vaccinations against COVID-19 will be done before the fall semester, it's foreseeable that some students will not have been vaccinated at that point and may want to be.
Overall vaccination progress and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help determine whether masks will continue to be required for ISU students on campus in the fall, and Lawrence expected that decision would probably be made around Aug. 1.
ISU spokesperson Angie Hunt said while most issues of students' noncompliance with the university's policies for social gatherings and masks "have been proactively addressed through education without the need to resort to disciplinary measures," 28 students were referred last fall to the Dean of Students Office for violations of the social gatherings policy.
Hunt said 27 of those students were given deferred suspension with an educational sanction, and another was given conduct probation with an educational sanction. No students were expelled, and there were no referrals or suspensions over winter break or so far in the spring, as of early February.
Lawrence said of those policies' future that the university would work with students to encourage them to do their part in mitigating the spread of the virus, "depending on what our expectations are."
He said testing for COVID-19 on campus would continue in the fall, and, "We've said classrooms will be at 100% capacity, so there would not be social distancing in a classroom."
There's already an accommodation process in place for students with "legitimate concerns" about being on campus because of health conditions such as being immunocompromised, he said, encouraging those students to contact their academic advisor to discuss options.
Lawrence said even this past fall, dorms had students living two to a room, which he said would continue.
Dining halls would probably be back at full capacity in the fall, he said.
Other Iowa universities' plans for the fall
The University of Iowa has told its faculty the university is "looking forward to returning to an on-campus, residential experience in fall 2021."
That means "The university will be holding classes in buildings that meet CDC COVID-19 ventilation recommendations. This means some lecture sections with more than 150 students may be moved online to provide greater classroom flexibility," according to an online announcement.
Classes may also be moved online if "there is a strong pedagogical reason to do so," but faculty will not be required to offer an online option for an in-person course based on a student's request.
Other academic activities including office hours, thesis and dissertation defenses, conferences, seminars and staff meetings may continue to be held virtually.
At the University of Northern Iowa, Patrick Pease, associate provost for academic affairs, said the plan this fall is for normal in-person classes, with other plans being tentative and dependent upon advice from state, local and federal authorities.
UNI's return to an in-person experience in the fall "will include increased capacity in classrooms, dining centers, and common spaces; the reopening of retail dining operations and a return of on-campus events," according to a news release earlier this month.
What is ISU's moving forward committee, who's on it and what's the scope of their decisions?
At ISU, Wintersteen tasked the moving forward committee with working with existing committees and groups to create the framework for the fall that "will guide units and departments in making decisions locally."
Lawrence said the committee would not make decisions about the extent to which virtual learning continues, and students will be notified about their options at registration time.
Though in-person classes would be the default, "There will be some online and some hybrid because we always had those," he said.
Decisions about whether to have fans at athletic events are also separate from the committee's work, he said.
Lawrence said what the committee will do is determine how other bodies' decisions will affect other parts of the university.
The university already has working groups in response to the pandemic that look at areas including academic continuity, events and gatherings, housing and dining, student life and workforce protection, and it's those groups that the moving forward committee will coordinate with.
The membership of the moving forward committee includes top administrative leaders in student health and wellness; human resources; diversity, equity and inclusion; and finances, as well as the president-elect of the faculty senate, chief of campus police, dean of the engineering school and chair of the chemistry department.
Lawrence said engineering Dean Sam Easterling previously served on the fall planning committee and will bring a multi-departmental perspective. Chemistry department chairperson William Jenks will bring a perspective from a departmental level — "teaching assistance, research assistance, faculty, staff, spaces the department controls, small classrooms, conference rooms and labs."
Lawrence also said he expects reaching normalcy in the fall will be less complicated than shutting down in spring 2020, going remote and coming back last fall, because the university has had a year behind it of learning to adapt to the pandemic, and communication has been happening on an ongoing basis.
Other aspects of college life at ISU may begin to return this summer
There are many aspects to college life for students beyond classrooms, dorms and dining halls, and Lawrence said some things may begin to feel more normal even over the summer.
Though the Iowa Board of Regents has lifted restrictions on university-sponsored international travel, Lawrence said ISU is still looking at Aug. 1 being when study abroad programs would open up for students again.
However, he said, "There may be some travel in summer with some additional precautions and restrictions." All of it — summer and fall — is dependent on destination countries' and the U.S.'s health rules regarding travel.
Back on campus, while some summer events are still canceled, Lawrence said it's "very likely" some things such as soccer or cheer camps will happen, but he couldn't say which activities for sure.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at email@example.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.