University of Iowa leaders wary of looming bar closure deadline, not ready for in-person learning

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen updated the state Board of Regents on the university’s campus and student life policies during COVID-19 at their meeting on Thursday.


Sarah Hansen, the Vice President of Student life for the University of Iowa, speaks to the Board of Regents about the university COVID-19 statistics on Thursday Sept. 17. Hansen had concerns about the reopening of the bars following the resolve of Governor Reynolds mandate. Majority of the cases on campus, were a result of off-campus activities.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

Leaders from the universities governed by the state Board of Regents said they are not ready to return to in-person learning or resume regular activities as the coronavirus remains prevalent in university towns.

At an update on campus life and COVID-19 operations delivered to the regents, University of Iowa Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen said she’s concerned about another spike in COVID-19 cases if bars in Johnson County reopen after the governor’s order expires Sept. 20. UI officials have pointed to off campus behavior, and not classroom access as the cause of the spread of COVID-19. 

As The Daily Iowan previously reported, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars in six counties, including the counties home to Iowa’s three public universities, to close due to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in 19-24 year-olds. On Sept. 15, Reynolds opened bars in four counties, but kept bars in Johnson and Story Counties, home to Iowa’s two largest universities, closed until Sept. 20.

Hansen said the bar closures have been helpful to keeping COVID-19 cases below triple-digits per day since Sept. 4.

“The bar closure in our county has been a tremendous help,” said Hansen. “Our numbers have absolutely plummeted…We are down to 20 cases a day at this point. I am worried about September 20…We know that our transmission hasn’t been in the classrooms or residences halls. Most of our cases are in apartments, downtown socializing, and fraternity and sorority houses.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a Daily Iowan request to comment by publication about whether Reynolds would extend the bar closure order.

On Sept. 11, four UI Greek sorority chapters were sanctioned for violating agreements related to COVID-19 and group gatherings. The four chapters posted on social media on Thursday apologizing for not adhering to COVID-19 guidelines and promising to assist in a PPE drive through a local organization.

RELATED: Iowa regents recommend no tuition hikes amid ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 uncertainty

The UI also reprimanded dozens of students for violating the COVID-19 student agreement for failing to social distance, failure to wear a face covering, and failure to isolate or quarantine, the DI previously reported.

When asked by Regent David Barker how many classes at the university were online and whether the university would move more classes in-person, Harreld said 78 percent of classes were now online and he has no intention of moving students back to in-person learning until the county’s percent positivity rate falls below 5 percent. Johnson County’s 14-day average positivity rate is 10 percent, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

While the UI has enough classroom capacity, Harreld said, it doesn’t have the testing capacity to bring more classes back in-person.

“I’m not comfortable [with our] testing capacity…specifically to allow us to test a large enough percentage of our population,” Harreld said. “We will need to get an infection rate of under five percent and right now…the county is at 12.6 [percent], so we have a long way to go.”

While discussing when students will return to in-person classes, Harreld said he was unsure if there is enough data on if students want to be face-to-face or online. In his personal experience with the class he teaches, Harreld said only a few students have opted to be in-person.

“I’m not sure we have good data to support that [students who want to be in-person]”, he said. “I am currently teaching and I have a class of 30. They’re largely campus leaders and we are teaching in a blended fashion…we have a classroom…configured for 30 students as well as online for every class. Students can choose where they want to be and so far, the most I’ve had physically in class is five. 25 have chosen to stay online wherever they are.”

Harreld said he does not want to rush back to face-to-face instruction when there are several unknown variables about the virus. He said he wants students, faculty, and staff to be able to choose their comfort level for as long as possible.

RELATED: Iowa regents approve fiscal 2021 budget with decreased state funding, tuition revenue amid COVID-19 pandemic

Checking in on students

Hansen said one focus the university has this fall is on mindfulness and mental health education during the pandemic. She said a change the university has made recently is an addition of a request for additional help on the self-report form students who have tested positive for COVID-19 must fill out. 

“They can request additional help or an outreach and they can let us know if they’ve already notified their faculty,” she said. “Our student care and assistance operation [has] added staff in that area and they are outreaching to every student who fills out the self report form…They’re reaching out to those students to find out what they need immediately as well as periodically reaching out during their quarantine and isolation periods.”

Hansen and representatives from Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa said helping students stay connected and creating interpersonal relationships during their isolation period was important.

During her presentation to the board, Hansen said the UI’s Temporary Alternative Learning Arrangements for students and faculty members have been utilized by many to ensure everyone can be accommodated during COVID-19. 

“482 requests [from faculty] have been submitted and 460 have been approved,” she said. “…We’ve had 352 students who were in the COVID-related medical category and then 369 students who requested alternative arrangements for online learning not related to health conditions. Most of those are handled on a collegiate level.” 

She said to her knowledge, all of these student and faculty requests have been approved.

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