Colleges and universities across Illinois have started sharing initial plans for what the fall semester might look like as the city and state shift to Phase 4 of reopening.
Many are trying to balance health and safety with the financial reality that they need students in their dorms, dining halls and classrooms.
While many unknowns remain, one thing is certain: College will look a lot different than it did a year ago.
Don’t forget your mask for class
State officials said this week that while healthy and safety are paramount, they’re also concerned about the negative effects the pandemic could have on students’ ability to ultimately earn a degree. This is a particular concern for low-income students or students who are the first in their family to attend college.
“We know the path to personal success runs right through our college and universities,” said Ginger Ostro, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “Now more than ever a college degree is a stepping stone to jobs of the future. … We say to [students] don’t let COVID-19 throw you off your college path.”
To do that, college campus policies will mirror those in place in restaurants, stores and other public places: masks in class, social distancing, groups no larger than 50 in a single space and plenty of hand sanitizer.
Schools must also figure out traffic patterns so students can walk around hallways without congregating. For example, Loyola University Chicago is increasing the time between classes to allow students to get around when access to stairwells and elevators is limited. But specific details have yet to be communicated.
“Whether that means there will be staggered release from classrooms or they’re anticipating by giving us all 30 minutes, we’ll go a bit more slowly and stay a bit more distant from other people … those kinds of things just haven’t been announced,” said Loyola professor Reuben Keller, who will teach one in-person and one online class in the fall.
Loyola, like other universities, is also ending the in-person semester at Thanksgiving break.
Even if a school offers in-person classes, students in most cases will be able to elect whether they want to show up or do it online. Professors are being asked to teach in a hybrid model, with some students in class and some watching remotely. Some university officials said they are prioritizing in-person sessions for hands-on courses, like science labs and art classes, while humanities courses are more likely to remain entirely online.
Dining halls: table for one
Many universities say dining halls must limit capacity or they will offer to-go meals. As for residence halls, the state says students will be able to return to dorms, but they may not have a roommate or be allowed any visitors. Access to shared bathrooms and other common spaces will be limited, and they’ll be cleaned more often. The state said universities also have to designate a residence area for students who test positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for a few weeks while they recover.
While universities can do a lot to control student movements on campus, they have much less authority off campus. It will be impossible to monitor whether students follow guidelines in their off-campus apartments or public places. The success of these plans relies on thousands of students following strict rules, and some professors, including Keller, are dubious.
“We’re relying upon a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds to follow what are going to be some really stringent rules regarding their social interactions,” he said. “That’s a big assumption. It’s a big experiment that all of these universities are going to be doing.”
Faculty unions across Illinois slammed state officials this week for failing in their guidance to address the social aspects of college life or to issue clear guidance on student testing for COVID-19.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has said it developed its own saliva COVID-19 test that it plans to use to test students when they arrive and continuously throughout the semester at 20 different sites. But other universities have yet to offer specific plans.
There are also many logistical questions about adjusting campus life, as well as a laundry list of other questions. For example, how will universities handle students coming from states that may have seen an uptick in cases? What kind of enforcement measures will be put in place to ensure students and faculty follow the rules, and will there be action taken if some people do not comply?
It will be a long summer ahead as schools across Illinois try to come to some resolution on these issues and many more.