Iowa’s Board of Regents has asked its three public universities to “move as quickly as possible toward the ability to deliver instruction virtually” amid rapidly-escalating concerns over a spreading novel coronavirus that’s arrived in Iowa.
The advisement from Board of Regents President Mike Richards on Tuesday afternoon did not provide details about what his request might mean for students, faculty, and staff — including whether they’ll be asked to leave campus, including the thousands of students living in the residence halls.
More specific details about how each campus will handle the rest of this spring semester will be provided no later than 8 a.m. Thursday, according to Richards’ statement.
“It is important for students, faculty, and staff to prepare for this eventuality this week prior to spring break,” he said.
Additionally, the board is extending its ban on university-sponsored international travel until further notice and until conditions improve, allowing faculty, staff, and students to plan ahead. It already canceled study abroad programming in heavily-impacted countries and halted travel, including for those about to embark on spring break study abroad experiences.
Regarding domestic university-travel, the board is leaving that up to each institution.
“However, the board will continue to evaluate daily and its current recommendation is to avoid areas with high numbers of identified cases of COVID-19,” he said.
Seven of Iowa’s eight presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 are in Johnson County — home to the University of Iowa and its 31,240 students. UI officials earlier this week said the first three were not connected to campus. It hasn’t issued an update since Sunday.
Earlier Tuesday, Iowa’s private Grinnell College became the state’s first higher education institution to send students home for the rest of the semester due to the spreading coronavirus.
In a message to his campus, Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington directed all students to “make plans to go home for spring break and finish the semester there.”
Spring break for Grinnell begins March 14 — as it does for many other campuses, including UI, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa. Grinnell’s Kington said all students should be off campus by March 23 — as it shifts to distance learning for the rest of the academic year.
“Because the situation is changing so rapidly, for the good of our campus and city community, we feel compelled to move forward with plans to prevent or slow the transmission of the virus as best we can, and mitigate its risks once it comes to our community,” Kington wrote in his communication.
“We are cognizant that the close living quarters of a college campus create an environment that has a particularly high risk of transmission and are unwilling to put our most vulnerable community members at risk.”
Grinnell also is canceling all athletic events, practices, and competitions for the rest of the semester. And it’s considering canceling its commencement ceremony, scheduled for May 18.
Grinnell’s enrollment is about 1,700 students.
The three public universities combined have more than 75,000 students — including nearly 20,000 who live in the campus residence halls. Current rates for a standard double room without air conditioning and a meal plan top $9,000. A recent report cataloging the campuses’ economic impact to their respective communities found a $232.9 million student spending impact and a $38.1 million visitor spending impact in the 2017-18 budget year.
Many students are on scholarships and graduation plans — with any academic delays potentially extending their time to graduation and thus their total collegiate expenses.
It’s unclear whether President Richards’ directive pertains to the UI College of Medicine, which has students and faculty who double as researchers, clinicians, and physicians in the UI Hospitals and Clinics.
The number of Iowa residents enrolled on the regent campuses far outpaces out-of-state and international student numbers — meaning many students, if asked to return home for the rest of the semester, would stay in Iowa.
Grinnell, as it sends students home, is making everyone share his or her plans to leave campus via an emailed form from its Division of Student Affairs.
“All students must fill out this form,” according to Kington.
Grinnell students with exceptional reasons to stay on campus can petition to remain.
“We encourage students to take as many of their belongings as possible,” according to Kington. “Particularly the items and materials they need to continue their studies remotely after the break. A subsequent notice to students will provide more information about packing and moving support.”
Classes will continue as scheduled through the end of this week.
In preparing for distance learning to begin March 30 — after spring break — faculty will receive information and support for online instruction, and administrators will share guidance on new policies that will impact daily operations.
“We will take care that students bear no undue burden based on their status,” according to Kington. “Including financial need. More information on how the College will address this will be forthcoming.”
Grinnell’s administrative offices will stay open, as will its libraries. Officials are still assessing the possibilities of keeping other buildings open.
Like Iowa’s public universities, Grinnell also has barred college-sponsored international travel and on Tuesday expanded those restrictions to include all college-sponsored domestic travel in- or outbound through May 15.
Although Grinnell is planning town hall sessions for Wednesday to share more information and answer questions, it also is in the process of “instituting a series of policies and practices based on the concept of social distancing.”
The goal of those practices is to decrease the need and opportunity for community members to gather in large groups or spend extended periods of time together.