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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Colleges Struggle To Plan Amid Pandemic Uncertainty

Students standing in front of Ames Library
Illinois Wesleyan University
The pandemic has forced Central Illinois Colleges and Universities to develop wider range of contingency plans in how the next academic year will unfold.

Central Illinois colleges and universities have no surety in how the next academic year will develop. The pandemic has forced them to plan for a wider range of contingencies than usual, everything from a "regular" school year with in-person classes, to socially distanced courses, to all online.

Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Heartland Community College officials said they hope classes return to normal in the fall, but guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and orders from Gov. JB Pritzker will steer decision-making.

Illinois Wesleyan University

Mark Brodl, provost and dean of faculty of IWU, said the university is preparing contingency plans for online classes this fall. 

“We’ll continue to do that to be sure that we’re compliant and to be sure that we’re confident and we’re as safe as we can be,” said Brodl. 

If classes were to return to in-person in the fall, Brodl said IWU will encourage healthy safety rules to keep the virus from spreading. He said for students who may remain concerned about the spread of COVID-19, online classes could be a choice.

If all classes were to remain online, Brodl said the university is exploring ways to accommodate majors where in-person instruction is key, even if that means only having some students on campus. 

For majors that require lab instruction, Brodl said the university is considering a “lab in a box” where supplies can be sent to students to conduct labs at home. Theater majors could do virtual interactions with other students and instructors. He also raised the idea of having only students in majors that need in-person instruction on campus while others remain at home. The university is also thinking about switching terms around—having fall classes over the summer, hold spring courses in the fall, and hold summer classes during the spring, to help first-year students adjust to online classes and current students remain in classes to graduate on time. 

He said IWU is also exploring how to fit internships and student orientation into socially distanced practices.

“For our students that will be new to Illinois Wesleyan starting in the fall, we feel it’s very important to, if we can, bring them onto campus so they can feel like they’re going to college, that this a part of their identity, bonding with one another and making connections with faculty,” Brodl said.

He said first-year students could have courses on campus to adjust to college while other students remain online.

Illinois State University

ISU President Larry Dietz said in a meeting with the Board of Trustees on Saturday he hopes to open campus in the fall and will continue social distancing and healthy habits if doors were to open. But Dietz said realistically neither that nor a completely online scenario are likely to happen, but something in between.

The shape of the semester will depend, Dietz said, on the status of the virus and guidelines in place.

“The most important thing is the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students in our community. That’s going to be our upmost importance and will guide our decision-making,” Dietz said.

ISU spokesperson Eric Jome said while the university has not made an official decision on extending online classes until 2021, they are examining possible options for adjusting internships, clinicals, and labs for online instruction. 

“Those would be the kind of things that need a longer term of planning to come up with a richer experience and to be able to get some of those things figured out,” Jome said. 

Heartland Community College

Heartland President Keith Cornille said his college is “hoping for the best and planning for the worst” for fall online classes. He said Heartland has extended online classes until summer, but the CDC’s guidelines and Pritzker’s orders will shape decisions.

“Those are drivers that we look at to determine where we need to position the college,” Cornille said. 

Cornille said the college is working towards helping students receive quality instruction during online classes. He said they’ve created online material such as simulations that accommodate material that usually requires in-person instruction. 

Information Access

Cornille said some students lack resources to do courses from home, such as laptops and internet access, especially for students where service is fuzzy. Cornille said the college has loaned laptops to students on campus and mailed equipment to their homes. They’ve worked with local providers to help students who need access to internet and hotspots, said Cornille. 

ISU has made similar moves. Jome said ISU made laptops available to students to check out and extended internet coverage for students and the community.

“There are a few spots on campus that we put out there for the public on the south end of campus off of Beaufort Street where there is enough Wi-Fi coverage that members of the public can pull into the parking lot and sit there in their cars,” Jome said. “There’s a sign there with instructions on how to sign on to the internet.” 

Jome said ISU has pointed students in areas where there’s limited access to providers offering internet to students. 

Brodl said IWU also offered a laptop checkout service, and helps students off-campus with local providers. 

Improvements for the Future

The spring semester pivot from in-person classes to online instruction was a rushed job. Instructors switched curricula mid-semester. The quick change lead to technical difficulties and professors navigating unfamiliar teaching options.

Jome said the biggest challenge ISU faced when switching online was the sudden change in format and figuring out what was best for professors and students. He said students needed to mentally adjust to a new method of learning unexpectedly and expeditiously. He said while the university has adjusted well to the switch by updating Zoom licensing and increasing capacity for courses to take place, they want to get better at delivering content in the new format. 

“In the planning process, if we continue doing these kinds of things, there would be adjusted expectations right from the beginning,” Jome said. 

Cornille said prior to the pandemic, Heartland installed a new learning management system called Canvas, a digital learning platform to enhance online learning. He said the new system has helped staff and students transition to online-only courses smoothly. He said he expects no further improvements to the system, but he wants to further equip professors to utilize online platforms such as Zoom. Heartland plans summer workshops for professors to certify them to teach online. Seventy staff are signed up to begin the workshop in May, said Cornille. 

“If the crisis were to continue, which we know it will, at least through the summer, we will have all of our faculty prepared with that element of teaching online,” Cornille said. 

At IWU, Mark Brodl said staff discovered weaknesses in the learning management system. Brodl said issues with posting content, providing feedback to students, and delivering resources need to be improved for future online courses.

Impact on Enrollment

Uncertainty whether universities and colleges future must deliver classes online next school year has caused confusion and disrupted student plans. Incoming freshmen aren’t sure whether to attend college if they would not receive a traditional educational experience on campus. ISU, IWU, and Heartland have extended deposit deadlines until June 1 to give families extra time to make a decision and accommodate potential financial hurdles caused by the pandemic.

Brodl said IWU applications are up from the previous year. He said he remains optimistic about strong enrollment for the fall but is concerned about layoffs and affordability that could sway student’s decisions. 

“People’s ability to be able to afford to come to college is going to become a bigger concern and that could clearly have an impact on enrollment for the fall,” Brodl said. “We’re nervously watching that but we’re optimistic that things could return to quasi-normal.” 

Eric Jome said ISU enrollment deposits are coming in slower possibly due to financial challenges due to the pandemic.

“We still expect strong enrollment simply because of interest in Illinois State, interest from students and parents knowing the reputation of the school,” Jome said. 

Cornille said HCC enrollment for summer courses has dropped, though he expects admissions to remain steady. He said students are adjusting to a new way of learning that requires more time to prepare.

“I think we’ll see people come back even in an online environment to continue their education and we’re going to be prepared to serve them in that way,” Cornille said. 

Encouraging Students to Stay

Not all students are into the idea of coming back for online classes. Some students are considering taking a semester off if online instruction is extended until 2021. High school students may take a gap year and begin college when in-person instruction returns. Traditional face-to-face instruction is vital for majors where in-person interaction is required. Some students feel it is a downgrade from traditional learning and it isn’t the best way for them to digest the material. They feel it isn’t necessary to continue online classes that they didn’t pay for.

Heartland, IWU, and ISU said they are trying to address all those concerns.

Cornille said he talked with a student at Heartland who was unsure about continuing online classes in the fall. 

“We talked it through and in the end, he saw that it is to his benefit to continue to keep going,” Cornille said. “I would encourage students to keep moving forward. They are on a pathway for their success. Our faculty are doing a fabulous job of trying to provide support to the student’s needs as well as tutoring and staff there to answer. We had that conversation and we reassured students that we would have that support in place for them in order to ensure that they would get the quality of education they would expect from Heartland.” 

Brodl said IWU is thinking about continuing classes through the summer to keep students on track. In the meantime, he encouraged students to reach out to advisors to construct a plan to graduate on time.

“What we would suggest is going ahead and take some of those classes that you might have been putting off until your junior or senior year and taking them now, the ones that don’t demand so much in-person interaction,” Brodl said. “And the ones that you would really benefit from that in-person interaction, can you take them later on?” 

Brodl said faculty and staff are working nonstop to provide quality material for students if online-only classes were to continue.

Jome said he understands the challenges and stresses that come with adjusting to online learning. He’s encouraging ISU students to continue communicating with the university to access the support and resources they need to cope with the new format. 

“This kind of situation is not going to last forever,” Jome said. “We will eventually get back to face-to-face learning. We got to be very safe and cautious about how we do that and look to guidance from health officials and government officials here in Illinois. We really encourage people to remain engaged as students and remain a part of the university and the community.” 

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.