The start of the fall semester was rocky for Illinois State University. Original plans for COVID-19 test supplies fell through just two weeks before the start of classes. Students saw their once blended schedules moved nearly all online, triggering questions about whether students should move back at all, and why they’re paying full price.
Now, the university is going through that process all over again as spring semester approaches.
ISU received 273 inquiries related to COVID-19 from Aug. 1 through Sept. 3, according to documents obtained by WGLT. The inquiries were sent to a university coronavirus email line, or submitted through a COVID-19 contact form.
Nearly half (115) of the inquiries were submitted by students. Parents accounted for 63 of the submissions, while faculty and staff submitted 27. Only a few (4) identified as community members. Another 60 did not contain identifying information. The university also fielded other questions that did not come in through this email address or online form.
The most prominent concern is testing. The university received 45 questions about its COVID-19 testing policy and practices. For the first two weeks of August, the majority of those inquiries had to do with pre-semester testing: Do I have to get tested before I return to campus? What happens if I don’t have a testing site in my area? Where do I submit my test results?
But the questions soon shifted to ISU’s on-campus surveillance testing strategy—mostly from parents and others not identified.
In an Aug. 8 email, one parent decried the university’s “insufficient testing strategy.”
“The Interstate Center option isn’t an acceptable option for ISU students,” the parent wrote. “This is an almost 40 minute mass transit ride for ISU students without a personal vehicle on campus. Can’t understand why the county health department would not have a site directly on ISU’s campus.”
On-campus, asymptomatic student testing sites weren’t up and running until Aug. 17. Testing was available earlier for symptomatic students through Student Health Services.
Others noted the testing strategy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wondering when ISU might adopt a similar policy of requiring students to be tested. To date, ISU has only required testing for a small group of students—primarily those living on-campus. More than 90% of classes this semester were held virtually. By contrast, the U of I requires all undergraduate students to be tested twice weekly, while employees and graduate students are tested once per week.
For students who did get tested on campus, the main question was: “When will I get my results?”
The university received 21 inquiries about COVID-19 test results. Those started flowing in on Aug. 20—a few days into classes—and continued for about a week. More than a third (8) were questions about when students would get their results. Another third (8) were reporting a positive test result.
One COVID-positive student documented how the illness was impacting their educational performance in an Aug. 22 email:
“I just received my test results and they ended up being positive,” the email reads. “I was just wondering what this meant in terms of school work and classes? I am finding it very difficult to stay focused and even awake for substantial periods of time (I would say 1 hour tops) and do not feel like I am in a fit position to complete my work to the best of my abilities. I would obviously be willing to make up all work after my two weeks but I would hate for my compromised health to impact my grades and learning.”
Another student expressed concern over getting her test results from the Interstate Center relayed to university.
“I tested positive at the McLean County Fairgrounds and they, unfortunately, only share results with us via phone call,” the Aug. 27 email read. “How should I go about sharing my results ... if I have no documentation of my test? I understand that documentation is needed so that it's an honest exchange of data, but I'm in a bit of a pickle ... I wanted to contribute to the count so that it could be a more accurate representation of the student population and a source of data that can appropriately inform university decisions. I'm sure there are other students in my position, as well.”
The university also received five notices of late test results, all during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak on campus, when positive test results exceeded 1,300. That surge has since subsided.
The second most prominent concern going into the fall semester was housing—and more specifically, housing contracts. The university received 28 inquiries about student housing. They were split nearly evenly between parents (12) and students (11).
Parents wanted to know whether housing costs would be prorated if students needed to leave campus, as well as how to request a refund if their student no longer felt comfortable in the residence halls or university apartments.
On Aug. 14, one parent wrote to the university, expressing concern about moving students back into the dorms—a decision they said forced families to make complicated decisions too early, when the university’s plans were still in flux.
“Your cancellation fees seem both onerous and unknowing of the circumstances taking place in the world,” the parent wrote. “To make a 20-year-old feel not only the pressure to excel in school and stay safe, then add the feeling he will hurt his family financially if he doesn't decide before he can even see what goes on when all rooms have been moved into, well for lack of better terms sucks. I get that this is a hard time, but I don't think you have thought this through!”
When the majority of classes were moved online, the university extended the deadline to cancel housing and dining contracts without penalty through Aug. 18. In a Sept. 1 campus update, Provost Aondover Tarhule announced the university would continue to waive penalty fees.
Other parents grappling with whether to move their student in at all questioned whether they’d lose their spot in university housing in the spring if they pulled their contract now.
“Students who do not live close enough to campus, need answers so they can make informed decisions about housing,” a parent wrote on Aug. 7. “Last spring, my daughter woke up early when housing selection was available to get the room she wanted. Now we are told that she can cancel her contract (yes, with no charge), but that it would cancel for the whole year, and she could apply for housing when the application opens in October, but there is no guarantee she would get the location (building) or room type she currently has selected.”
Students, on the other hand, questioned what would happen if their roommate canceled their housing contract at the last minute. They also expressed concern over the isolation rooms being used for COVID-positive students in university housing.
One student demanded an explanation in this Aug. 18 correspondence:
“I am extremely concerned at finding out that a symptomatic, positive student and roommate were told to quarantine in their dorm,” the email said. “This is not the protocol you have promised us or present in your communications. I would never have signed a housing contract if I had known this is what would happen. I was told students would isolate at home or in on-campus designated spots if home is not possible.”
Others questioned how the students staying in the isolation rooms were being cared for.
“For the students who have been relocated to quarantine, how do you send them food/essential items or have them dropped off?” a parent wrote on Aug. 26. “For a student that does not have a vehicle there, the time frame he was given to move did not allow for him to get what he needs. He needs more than the meals that are being sent. At this point, he has only been exposed.”
ISU spokesperson Eric Jome said a student living in a residence hall or university operated apartment who tests positive is asked to move to an isolation space. If the student has a roommate, the roommate also is directed to quarantine separately.
Jome said University Housing Services is notified by Student Health Services when a student tests positive for COVID-19 or deemed a close contact. Housing staff contact the impacted student and explain isolation and quarantine procedures.
A limited number of isolation and quarantine spaces are available in all residential areas of campus for on-campus students, he said.
“Students are asked to return home only if it is safe to do so during their isolation/quarantine period so that there is adequate space for students who have extenuating circumstances (e.g., housing and food insecurity, etc.) that prevent them from returning home or to their permanent residence,” Jome said in an email.
He said students in on-campus isolation or quarantine spaces are provided with linens, cleaning supplies, and a weekly treat bag, and are delivered a continental breakfast and two hot meals each day. Staff contacts students each day to check on their well-being.
In total, the university received six inquiries about isolation rooms and 15 about cancelling housing contracts, including five about how that would affect student placement in the spring.
The outpouring of criticism and doubt surrounding ISU’s Redbird Return Plan was the third most common submission. Twenty-six people—many unidentified—lodged complaints about the university’s approach to the pandemic.
One community member who described themself as an “innocent bystander” reached out to the university during the height of the campus outbreak on Aug. 25, as ISU’s testing positivity rate (7-day rolling) rose above 20%.
“At what point is your attempt to have students on campus considered a failure? You are reaching [a] 25% positive rate ... What's the impact on the surrounding community?” the email reads. “You publish dashboard numbers and your ‘commitment’ but without transparency about the thresholds around these numbers, you have done nothing other than publish some numbers on a dashboard.”
Another community member on Aug. 21 lashed out at the university for not heeding warnings about the “insanity” of opening for the fall term.
“I guess this is just another example of the mentality that the rest of us are expendable to death, because the almighty economy of ISU is more important,” the email reads. “I'll just leave it with, ‘I told you so.’ Shame on all of you who made this decision.”
In total, 21 people reached out to the university asking for a threshold for when campus will close--be it a certain number of student cases, a high enough testing positivity rate, or a trigger from state or local health authorities.
Others questioned the value of bringing students back to campus at all for an almost entirely online experience.
“I normally take so much pride into this campus, community, and university as a whole, but the university has not met mine, or other students' expectations when looking at how the university has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic,” one student wrote in an Aug. 7 email. “I understand that many of the rules that have been placed are for our own safety as a community, but I also see the toll that it has taken on us, the students.”
In addition to preferring in-person learning, a slew of students and parents alike said they didn’t feel like they were getting the proper educational bang for their buck.
“Like many students, I will learn less, understand less, and gain less experience within my field of study due to the way in which online classes are taught,” another student wrote in an Aug. 6 email. “I've also noticed that this year my undergrad resident tuition and mandatory fees are the most expensive they have ever been … Why are students angry? Because students have signed leases and taken out loans that cannot be reversed or refunded.”
A total of 21 people wrote to the university to complain about tuition not being discounted despite nearly all virtual learning, as well as mandatory fees for facilities students can’t use.
There also were concerns about the university’s transparency surrounding the COVID-19 situation on campus. Twenty-four people inquired about the university’s data reporting system—either asking where to find the information, why more information wasn’t included, whether ISU cases were counted in the McLean County Health Department numbers, etc.
Several had questions about the university’s notification of COVID cases on campus—either looking to confirm a rumored positive test in a dorm or other campus building, or wondering why students and employees would not be alerted when there’s an illness that could affect them.
“I understand things are still up in the air and every day is a new challenge, but as a student I am feeling uninformed,” a student wrote in an Aug. 23 email. “Much of the information I am receiving about COVID is coming from the internet. New people are testing positive everyday. This is a very challenging time for everyone here on campus and I would just hope that as things progress that we, the students, receive more information than what we are currently being given.”
These questions and others aren’t likely to go away as ISU approaches the spring semester.
Registration opens Oct. 19, and not all instructors have decided the modality of their classes. The university is surveying students, faculty and staff about possible changes to the spring schedule.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct the date when registration begins. It's Oct. 19.
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