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

ISU Administrators Push Back On COVID-19 'Myths,' Criticism

Board of Trustees on a conference call
Breanna Grow
Illinois State University's Board of Trustees heard updates from several university administrators Saturday afternoon on the university's response to COVID-19 infections and impacts.

Illinois State University administrators fended off criticism and debunked myths surrounding COVID-19 on campus during a virtual update to the Board of Trustees on Saturday.

ISU Associate Professor of English Brian Rejack told trustees the university has downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak on campus.

“You can’t just explain away 1,300 cases by claiming that we test more than other schools,” said Rejack, referring to ISU President Larry Dietz’s State of the University address Thursday. 

During the address, Dietz also said other universities test so often that their positivity rates skew low. Rejack said that statement “sends a dangerous message to the public that the high-case positivity rates from ISU and McLean County are no cause for concern.”

Rejack also criticized the university’s response to the spike in infections. He noted Bradley University this week ordered students to quarantine on campus for two weeks. The University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana also imposed stricter rules about social gatherings and travel on and off campus last week.

“What is stopping ISU from taking such a step?” he asked. “What is to be gained from refusing to initiate some form of lockdown?... We can’t merely offer stern admonishment to students and threaten them with disciplinary action.”

Dietz said the university has been transparent about COVID-19 cases on campus. He said ISU’s coronavirus dashboard reports more information than other public universities across the state. “And we’re doing it on a daily basis; many others do it on a weekly basis,” he added.

Assistant to the President Brent Patterson said the university is planning to roll out an updated dashboard next week. The change will include a switch from reporting positive tests to positive cases. 

“So that means that each positive case will be a person instead of a test,” he explained. “If you just do tests, that’s when you can have multiple positives.”

The new dashboard also will differentiate between active and recovered cases, and show self-reported positive cases among faculty and staff, Patterson said. 

"There is no 'send them home.' This is their community."

He also said the office of Gov. JB Pritzker will be adding a mobile testing site near ISU’s campus beginning next week for anyone in the community to use.

Dietz noted the university’s testing capacity will ramp up significantly once it’s able to set up its own saliva-based testing lab using the U of I Shield Illinois Program model. That facility is still about 10 weeks away from implementation, Dietz said. 

He said options like sending students home and ordering a campuswide quarantine “seem like obvious solutions” to the current spike in infections. But those options don’t take into account the nearly 14,000 students living off-campus, he said.

“They’ve signed leases in our community, they want to be here, and they’re going to be here,” Dietz said. He noted that unlike its own on-campus facilities, the university has no ability to provide off-campus students wanting to cancel their housing contracts a financial “out.” 

He said while the university will continue to support its off-campus students, it also will hold them accountable to the student code of conduct. ISU vowed this week to find and discipline students who attended large outdoor parties on Tuesday night.

Dietz said the university has received a number of emails from students identifying individuals who attended the gatherings. Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson said the university has issued requests to 80 students to meet with staff on the issue, with another 15 ready to be sent Monday.

Those found to have attended the gatherings will be required to undergo some form of corrective education, Johnson said. As for the individuals responsible for bringing YouTube pranksters the Nelk Boys to the university, “That could end up with suspension,” Johnson said.

Myths vs. reality

Another Dietz advisor, Jay Groves, gave a presentation titled, “Myths vs. Reality” that sought to address the apparent division between campus and community he said has been thriving on social media.

Groves, a former university spokesperson, said “sending students home” is not an option to address local infections.

“There is no ‘send them home,’” he said. “This is their community.” 

Not only do students contribute to the local economy, they also contribute to the local quality of life, said Groves, noting students spend about 90,000 hours volunteering in the community each year.

Groves also argued students haven’t fundamentally altered the presence of COVID-19 in the surrounding community.

“… While the COVID has really exploded among the students, it has not so much, in the community," Groves said.

“When they came here, in early August, in McLean County hospitals there were seven people suffering COVID, and one person was in ICU. Yesterday’s data (Friday) shows that there were six people in McLean County hospitals, with two in ICU,” he said.

It is not clear hospitalization and critical care data from early August support Groves’ assertion. On Aug. 5, when move-in began, the health department indicated there was one hospitalization, not seven. In the preceding "early August" days before the students arrived there were between one and four hospitalizations. On Friday, there were nine hospitalizations, not six.

And hospitalizations are not the only metric by which to measure COVID's impact. A skyrocketing positivity rate on its own in the region, for example, could automatically trigger state mitigations that would shut down part of the economy.

Also, there is compelling data that there has been greater community spread since Aug. 17, when ISU and Illinois Wesleyan resumed classes.

There have been around 414 new cases reported in people age 30 and over since Aug. 17. That was 26 days ago. Here's how that compares to the previous 26-day periods for those 30 and older in McLean County (presumably who are not college students):

  • Aug. 17 to Sept. 12: 414 new cases
  • July 22 to Aug. 17: 167 new cases
  • June 26 to July 22: 83 new cases
  • June 1 to June 26: 15 new cases

Financial pressures

Groves said he’s also heard criticism that the university is taking advantage of the pandemic for financial gain.

“Some people think this pandemic is a get rich quick scheme for public universities, and it is not. These are money losers,” he said.

Vice President for Finance and Planning Dan Stephens told trustees the pandemic has and will continue to negatively impact the university’s revenues, and increase expenses. 

Lost revenues, including reduced spending on on-campus housing and dining, translated to a $24 million hit in fiscal year 2020, and is projected to have a $20 million FY21 impact, Stephens said. 

The university also paid a total of $18 million in refunds to students last semester, he said.

Then there are the COVID-related expenses (testing, cleaning and medical supplies, and IT upgrades), expected to total about $9.6 million through the end of FY21.

All those impacts means the university will be dipping into its reserves, Stephens said. 

“But we’ve got them, and we will be able to rebound a lot quicker than some competitors in the country,” he said, adding the university also will be delaying work on several planned major capital projects, like the new student housing complex and the nursing simulation lab expansion.

Class format

Provost Aondover Tarhule addressed concerns over the format of courses at the university.

He noted the planned format of specific courses -- in-person, online, or a mix of the two -- changed more than once leading up to and one week into the start of the semester. 

Tarhule said the university switched some courses to in-person when the U.S. Department of State announced international students not taking at least one in-person course would be ordered to leave the country. Rising rates of COVID-19 infections on campus then forced the university to loosen restrictions on which courses could be taught online, he said. 

“So if you hear faculty expressing some degree of frustration with all of the changes that have been going on, it’s real,” he said. “We completely understand that ... but we are not making these decisions willy-nilly.” 

Tarhule said his office also received complaints from parents about class formats, specifically that students taking online classes were essentially left to teach themselves. He said his office responded to each of those complaints, asking parents to identify the classes they were concerned about--but 90% of the time never heard back.

Looking forward to the spring semester, Tarhule said he expects the mix of course formats to remain unchanged. Of the nearly 4,000 courses offered by the university this semester, 79.9% are completely online, 9.5% are in-person, and 10.5% are a hybrid, he said. 

Whether in-person courses remain so next semester of course depends on COVID, said Tarhule, adding that weekly emails to faculty have stressed the need to prepare to move classes to a completely online format if necessary. He said around 600, nearly half the university’s faculty, have taken some kind of workshop or training to learn how to begin or improve their skills teaching online.

There’s also a chance the spring semester will start later than the scheduled on Jan. 11, 2021, and that the university may cancel spring break, Tarhule said. He said those decisions won’t be announced until after the Academic Senate has a chance to weigh-in, hopefully in the next two to three weeks.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to add a quote following the summation of Jay Groves' argument that the presence of students has not fundmentally altered the presence of COVID in the community. WGLT also added health department hospitalization and critical care data to provide context to Groves' assertion that uses similar data.

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Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.
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