The NIU campus community is coming to grips with a new normal of teaching and learning during the lingering pandemic. Classes this fall have been held remotely or in a hybrid format. There are restrictions on housing and activities. And because cases of the coronavirus continue to spike across the United States and here in Illinois, more are coming.
Abigail Anderson is a media studies graduate student. She hopes those measures will be enough to slow the spread by next year.
“COVID has affected my first year in graduate school in several different ways," she said. "The most important thing is not having in-person meetings. It’s just difficult because I don’t know my peers. I don’t have that connection with my teachers. Everything has to be done by email or figured out on my own. As long as everyone’s health is the safest that’s what’s most important. I would just love it to go away.”
The university has been tracking cases among students and staff. There have been around 500 positive cases since the start of the school year.
Cases peaked in September. That’s when NIU paused face-to-face classes for two weeks to reduce the number of new cases. The school also conducted student surveillance testing to quarantine groups who were likely exposed. It seems to have worked, as positive test results decreased week over week over the past month.
The university recently told students and staff what to expect in a message to the campus community.
That includes teaching most classes remotely and suspending in-person commencement ceremonies.
This week, NIU President Lisa Freeman delivered her annual State of the University address…this time to a virtual audience. In it, she said there are just too many risks to going back to a regular university setting. She said the Thanksgiving holiday will be a challenge to containing the virus.
“We’re not where we want to be with COVID-19," Freemand said. "With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, knowing that shopping and gatherings provide more opportunities for viral transmission, we felt that against a background of community spread, it was going to be really important to prioritize the health and wellbeing of Huskies, being mindful already on the heavy burden of our contact tracers, we just felt the best decision for everyone was for those who could work remotely, do so.”
All residence halls and dining will remain open under current operations for students. However, the university is encouraging students who have the ability to do so to stay home after Thanksgiving break for the rest of the semester.
The spring schedule will also be altered. It will end one week earlier than in previous years and there will be no spring break
As happened this fall, students living on campus will be required to schedule move-in times and provide negative COVID-19 test results just prior to their scheduled return date. The university will also continue to only offer single rooms for the spring semester.
Some students at NIU had hoped for a different outcome.
Tommy Gosche is a graduate student studying personal training. He wishes students could have in-person classes to ensure an educationally rich environment.
“It’s been quite difficult to kind of mix the hands-on work with the classroom work. I already have my schedule set for next semester and it’s going to be similar to this semester where it’s all online," Gosche said. "If I had to pick how they would handle it, I would say they should kind of prioritize, I guess the more important classes to be in person throughout the entire school.”
Meanwhile, the University of Illinois is hoping to bring more students on campus next year. During a news conference this month, the university’s vice chancellor for academic affairs said students and parents prefer in-person learning. But he said returning to in-person instruction will depend on keeping new cases at bay.
University of Illinois is also doing away with Spring Break. It will also require COVID-19 testing before classes begin.
The plans forming at college campuses across the state come as Illinois Governor J.B Pritzker adds new restrictions statewide. This week, he set Illinois into Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois Plan due to the recent COVID-19 case numbers. State officials, including Governor Pritzker, continued to sound the alarm.
“In August we were losing on average 14 people per day to this horrible disease. Today, that number is 83. COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in Illinois behind heart disease and cancer. Not only that, between March and October, COVID-19 took more lives than the next two highest causes: strokes and accidents, combined.”
And they continue to announce mitigation measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
So for students and university leaders, one thing is becoming clear…there could still be plenty more pivots needed to complete the school year.