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

ISU Plans Fall Term With Fewer Students In Dorms

Larry Dietz speaks to crowd
Lyndsie Schlink
Illinois State University
ISU President Larry Dietz said Thursday that planning is ongoing for how classes will be conducted during the fall term.

Up to 1,000 Illinois State University students who would normally live in residence halls may have to rent apartments for the fall semester. ISU President Larry Dietz said Thursday that's one social-distancing goal.

"We will de-densify the housing. It will vary by building and room. And so, the housing task force is getting into the planning stages right now," said Dietz.

Some universities plan to compress the academic schedule and eliminate fall breaks because of the pandemic, but Dietz said ISU is considering a different tactic to reduce coronavirus risk.

"One of the things we are looking at is after students go home for Thanksgiving is whether courses could be finished out online so that would eliminate travel back and forth and any potential exposure," said Dietz.

Dietz said ISU also will need some sort of virus-testing capacity if there is an outbreak on campus.

“We’re investigating having our own testing site here. The supplies are a concern about that. We would hope perhaps the state and the federal government would help us with some of the costs related to testing,” said Dietz.

Contact tracing goes hand in hand with tests, so Dietz said the university is talking with the county health department about that issue.

Planners, Dietz said, also must consider Dr. Anthony Fauci's suggestion that all staff and students on campuses be tested before the semester begins to provide a baseline.

“That’s a great goal. I don’t know if we’ll be able to accomplish that. There are a lot of unanswered questions right now” said Dietz.

The campus Redbird Return Plan has staged resumption of life on campus with key days of June 1, June 8, July 1, and Aug. 3:

  • Jun 1 – Limited staff reopen offices and restructure physical spaces for proper distancing
  • Jun 8 – Open buildings; staff open some offices for face-to-face contact
  • Jul 1 – Summer employees not already back return to offices
  • Aug 3 – Remaining employees return

“We think it’s a safer way to test our systems because the health and safety piece is the umbrella we’re all operating under,” said Dietz.
Face coverings will be required in the workplace. ISU will provide Redbird-branded reusable masks.

One of the societal challenges during the pandemic is inconsistent, individual adoption of such safety measures. Dietz said ISU will take a low-key approach to enforcement with abundant communication about the need for such measures.

“My hope is that with proper education, people will want to do the right thing. I harken back to the change in policies and society about smoking. At one time, some people who smoked would go wherever they wanted to smoke, and restaurants were filled with people who smoked. Our society has changed that to be safer and my hope is people will do that with even higher levels of awareness with this,” said Dietz.

He noted that if ISU finds people are not meeting the expectation, there are things within the personnel process and student conduct code that can be done.

With close to 20,000 students and staff combined on campus in the fall, it is possible some will get sick, no matter how rigorous the safety procedures. Dietz said plans to deal with cases and clusters of COVID-19 are a work in process.

If students do get sick, Dietz said the university will move those who live on campus to a separate facility. He said the university has not yet finalized a location for that dedicated space.

Meanwhile, a group of university presidents is meeting with Illinois Board of Higher Education officials to further develop common standards and a road map for all of Illinois higher ed institutions to reopen and to deal with surges.

Would ISU be able to toggle back and forth between open and virtual education if the community or region had a flareup?

“One of the things we learned in March is that as institutions we can be pretty resilient. We can turn things around pretty quickly,” said Dietz. “And I think we can pivot more quickly than before.”

Dietz said some people have described potential surges as "a dance and a hammer." If there is a surge, you use the hammer to shut everything down. Dietz said a physician told him a better analogy is a balloon.

“You can let a little air out of the balloon, become a little more open, but if there is a spike you can blow some air into the balloon to close some things down. That’s our goal is to be as nimble as we can,” he said.

Still in progress, Dietz said, are the answers to logistical questions about academic continuity. How many people can be allowed in a face-to-face course classroom? Which courses must have face to face? Can lecture courses move online. Will ISU need more sections of classes and more rooms to keep the numbers down?

"I think our preference as much as possible is to have person-to-person instruction in the classrooms, assuring the faculty are comfortable through social distancing, moving the chairs around , perhaps putting plexiglass in front of the lecterns if the faculty desire that,” said Dietz.

Dietz said there may be blending of online and person-to-person content.

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.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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