University of Iowa to move classes online for two weeks after spring break amid coronavirus outbreak

The change in instructional method comes as U.S. higher-education institutions have ranged from shutting down their campuses entirely or have temporarily moved instruction online.


Jeff Sigmund

UI administrators field questions from reporters during a press conference regarding the COVID-19 pandemic at the IMU on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

Marissa Payne, Editor-in-Chief

The University of Iowa on Wednesday announced in-person classes have been suspended for two weeks after spring break beginning March 23 through at least April 3 amid concerns about mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Campus access will remain open for UI Hospitals and Clinics, library services, and recreation and athletics facilities. The residence halls and dining services will also be open after spring break for students who opt not to stay home.

“We urge students to make a choice, their choice about the best place they can stay for their personal health and safety during this period of time,” UI Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz told reporters Wednesday.

The move follows a Tuesday announcement from the state Board of Regents that Iowa’s three public universities have been instructed to “move as quickly as possible towards the ability to deliver instruction virtually.”

Universities across the U.S. have taken similar steps affecting study-abroad programs and method of course instruction, with some schools choosing to send their students home for the remainder of the semester.

Some schools, such as Ivy League institution Harvard University and Iowa’s private liberal-arts school Grinnell College, instructed students to vacate campus soon and not return after spring break because of the outbreak.

The UI message, signed by President Bruce Harreld and Provost Montserrat Fuentes, said colleges will share information with faculty following guidance from the Provost’s Office regarding virtual instruction.

Fuentes told reporters Wednesday afternoon that university officials across campus units have put in long hours to test systems and ensure the proper support mechanisms are in place to change how the UI operates if necessary.

She said the UI is evaluating how to handle course components such as science labs, computer labs, or other performance classes such as dance.

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The university is also preparing plans for telecommuting opportunities for faculty and staff when appropriate, Lehnertz said.

He said because campus is operating and open to students, students will continue working and providing services at areas including the libraries, Cambus, and Recreation Services. The UI is working with student employees to secure any support they receive through the federal work-study program, Lehnertz said.

Students and instructors have been preparing for this possibility in recent weeks after the first cases of the virus that originated in Wuhan, China began to spread around the U.S., first in Washington State.

State officials first reported the virus in Iowa on Sunday with three positive cases in Johnson County. That number has grown to 14 in Iowa as of Wednesday, with 13 of those individuals residing in Johnson County and coming from the same Egypt cruise.

The regents have taken other steps to curb the virus’ spread, on March 5 announcing an immediate ban on university-sponsored travel for faculty, staff, and students at the three regent universities. The governing board extended the international travel ban by seven days each Monday, effective March 9.

The UI had already suspended study-abroad programs in China, South Korea, Italy, and Japan because of coronavirus concerns. Fuentes told reporters Wednesday that the UI recalled students abroad in Spain, France, and Germany because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they are expected to return to the U.S. by March 16. Students are self-isolating for up to 14 days upon return in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, she said.

RELATED: Some Hawkeyes uncertain amid U.S. universities’ moves to cancel in-person classes to curb COVID-19 spread

Lehnertz said university officials are compiling lists of events that gather larger groups and assessing the best course of action. He said there will be fair warning if events that require planning, travel, coordination, and other logistics will be discontinued, postponed, or canceled.

In regards to spring commencement ceremonies, Fuentes said the UI “determined that graduation would present a risk to public health.”

“We will find an alternative venue to celebrate our graduating seniors, so we’ll be evaluating this and presenting an announcement very soon,” she said. “We are fully aware of the need to give enough time to parents and students for their planning.”

Fuentes emphasized the need to maintain an inclusive campus atmosphere amid fear and uncertainty over the spread of COVID-19.

“The University of Iowa strives to be a very welcoming and inclusive campus community, and it’s very important for all of us to avoid any type of assumption about who may or may not be carrying the virus based on their identity,” she said.

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