URBANA — As it plans for in-person instruction, the University of Illinois so far hasn’t seen a major drop in enrollment for fall classes, Chancellor Robert Jones told the academic Senate on Wednesday.
“The number of fall 2020 students that plan to attend this university compared to last year is comparable,” he said. “And it shows that students have a lot of confidence in returning to the campus for face-to-face instruction.”
Individual units and departments are in the process of determining which classes will meet in person or online, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Bill Bernhard said. Under Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois guidelines, gatherings are limited to no more than 50 people.
“These teaching assignments of the modalities of the different courses are really a responsibility of the departments,” he said.
“We believe that this is a decision that’s best made at the unit level because the unit understands the nature of the course.”
He said most students have registered for classes, and once a revised class schedule is produced later in July, students will be able to look at their schedules and resolve conflicts.
“This is a process that normally takes about seven or eight months and we’re compressing it into three weeks,” Bernhard said.
And he said the UI doesn’t plan to revise its grading policy for this fall, as it did this spring when classes suddenly moved online and students were allowed to receive credit or no credit.
“We don’t anticipate any revisions to our standard grading policies for the fall semester,” Bernhard said.
For classes that meet in person, Bernhard said the UI is encouraging online versions to be made available but is not requiring it.
About 28 rooms should have equipment for instructors to do hybrid in-person/livestream teaching, said Greg Gulick, the university’s interim chief information officer, and more microphones are being bought so instructors don’t have to share them.
Administrators also said they’re still determining whether to finish the semester online after Thanksgiving break, as the academic affairs COVID-19 team recommended last month.
“We still want to work out the details here because I think there’s some questions to be answered and some considerations to be made there,” Bernhard said. “Remote instruction at any time is challenging, is difficult, especially for people with technology issues, and having finals online is likely to intensify some of those issues.”
When students return in the fall, everyone will be tested with a saliva-based COVID-19 test developed by UI researchers. The UI hopes to process 10,000 tests a day.
Everyone will also be required to wear masks, and not doing so could lead to discipline under the student code and unpaid leave for faculty and staff, administrators said.
But they hope to encourage voluntary compliance through an educational campaign that’s being developed with the psychology department.
“We are working on a semester-long compliance education campaign,” said Mike DeLorenzo, senior associate chancellor for administration and operations. “We’re working with faculty in community health, in psychology and communication in developing a robust plan to get voluntary compliance.”
Prior to the administrators’ presentation, history Professor Ralph Mathisen presented a petition calling for most classes this fall to be moved online.
Citing the spike in cases elsewhere in the U.S., he said, “there’s no reason to think that reopening would work any better here.”
“After a rash of new cases and even deaths among students, staff and faculty in the fall, the university will again be forced to shut down creating massive disruption,” Mathisen said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, about 30 faculty members have signed the petition.
Administrators didn’t have specific benchmarks for moving classes back online, but DeLorenzo said they would consult with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and the Restore Illinois guidelines.
Those guidelines say that regions of the state could fall back from Phase 4 to Phase 3, which limits gatherings to 10 people, if there’s a sustained rise in the test-positivity rate, a sustained increase in hospital admissions for COVID-19, a reduction in hospital capacity and a significant regional outbreak.
“We continue to work with C-UPHD to refine that and if there are things, particular to this area that we need to keep an eye on, it would adjust some of our decision making,” DeLorenzo said.
Administrators also expressed confidence that the combination of testing, face masks, social distancing and good hygiene would mitigate large outbreaks.
“Everything that we’ve been putting together through this very detailed work in close collaboration with health care providers follows the basic rules that we know are working,” Provost Andreas Cangellaris said.
And he said “testing at scale is how you’re able to monitor things and guide the community through the mitigation of unnecessary surges in COVID-19 cases.”
Asked about the UI’s legal exposure, DeLorenzo said it hopefully will be covered.
“There’s a lot of things going on, but we feel that we have pretty good protection,” he said. “I think our legal folks feel that we’re putting everything in place. As we talk about our layered approach of testing, the face coverings, the hygiene and compliance is going to provide us the lever that we’re doing everything we can to provide a safe environment for all of our faculty, staff and students.”