University of Iowa sets course for primarily in-person fall 2021, classes of 150-plus to remain online

The University of Iowa plans to return to a primarily in-person campus experience in fall 2021 as health officials continue to vaccinate more Iowans. But lecture classes of more than 150 students will be conducted online.


Jenna Galligan

The Old Capitol is seen on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

University of Iowa officials are setting the gears in motion for a mostly in-person semester in fall 2021 as the vaccine rollout continues across the state.

Classes with more than 150 students will remain online, the UI announced in a campus update leading into the weekend, but nearly all other classes that aren’t already offered as a distance-learning class will be in person.

Since classes moved online in March 2020, the campus has operated with more than 70 percent of classes online for the last three semesters. With pressure from lawmakers in Des Moines to conduct more education in-person and the promise of a vaccine for students, faculty, and staff in the fall, administrators are looking toward a fall 2021 with hope for a more feasible in-person learning environment.

According to the update, the UI will hold classes in buildings that meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ventilation recommendations to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission. That means some lecture classes with more than 150 students will be moved online, while discussion and lab sections meet in person.

“While the prevalence of COVID-19 will likely be diminished, we will continue to take steps to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for our students, faculty, staff, and community,” the email stated.

Instructors can still choose to hold a large lecture in person or a small discussion online, but must submit a request with the rationale by today.

“The goal is to hold as many face-to-face courses as possible while maintaining flexibility,” the email stated.

UI department executive officers received an email from administrators Jan. 29 outlining the plan for fall instruction, emphasizing that the UI “will begin a return to its primary goal of offering a residential, on-campus experience in fall 2021.”

Associate Deans Cornelia Lang and Christine Getz wrote that faculty members could submit a request to teach a class with fewer than 150 students online, but that “a very small number of exceptions will be granted.”

The request must include a rationale for the request to teach online and a short proposal “indicating that the course will be taught synchronously with thoughtful and appropriate opportunities for student engagement.”

Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa haven’t yet announced fall 2021 plans. Iowa’s three universities reported enrollment losses and shrinking tuition revenue as a result of the pandemic in reports to lawmakers last week. At the UI, more students canceled housing contracts during the fall 2020 semester — about four times the number in fall 2019 — though most were because of a transition to online classes. Only a quarter of those that broke their contracts cited withdrawal from the UI.

Other universities have announced a return to primary in-person instruction for fall 2021. The University of California’s 10 campuses plan to do so, though the system’s president, Michael V. Drake, said in a press release that further details wouldn’t be announced until the fall semester approached.

Iowa began vaccinating people in populations 1B, the first tier of which includes K-12 workers, people over the age of 65, and first responders. The state Board of Regents, which governs the three public universities, sent a letter to the Iowa Department of Public Health requesting the department include university faculty in Phase 1B, similar to K-12 staffers. The department denied the request, Faculty Senate President Joseph Yockey wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan, meaning university faculty members are not considered eligible for the five-tier Phase 1B, which is expected to take months to complete.

Yockey wrote that he’s hopeful the university will return to a pre-pandemic teaching environment, but that he’d like to have a better sense of when all remaining students, staff, and faculty can receive the vaccine before committing to a specific format for his fall courses.

“We know the local health situation can change rapidly, for good or bad, so building in some flexibility for the next academic year will also continue to be important,” Yockey wrote. “For our part, the Faculty Council and Senate remain willing and eager to help the planning effort in any way we can.”

Iowa Republicans, who are in control of the state’s budget dollars for the regents, have criticized the public universities for going too online too quickly this fall. In a House Republican Caucus newsletter, Republican leaders wrote that “thousands of students didn’t actually physically attend a single class this fall.”

About three-quarters of classes were online at the UI by Thanksgiving, after thousands of students self-reported testing positive for the virus at the start of the semester, a number which campus officials attributed to off-campus behavior. This spring, 72 percent of undergraduate credit hours are online compared to 76 percent during the fall semester, UI spokesperson Jeneane Beck wrote in an email to the DI.

Iowa ranks near the bottom nationally for COVID-19 vaccination distribution, with 8 percent of the state vaccinated, according to the Washington Post’s vaccine tracker, good for 46th. Student-health officials previously told the DI the general student population could be vaccinated by mid-summer or early fall. Select faculty and students doing field experiences in the College of Education or first responders in the Department of Public Safety may qualify to receive the vaccine in Phase 1B. The UI has already been working its way through vaccinating students and faculty who have face-to-face contact with patients.

According to a previous campus update, most UI employees will receive the vaccine through their primary care provider or pharmacy. The UI won’t host employee vaccination clinics on the main campus, according to the update, because of requirements to follow state guidelines for priority populations, a limited supply of the vaccine, ultracold storage for the Pfizer vaccine, and additional scheduling and logistics that would be required for two doses.

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