Illinois State University on Tuesday pointed to the unexpected loss of on-campus testing capacity and rising cases as major reasons why classes will be primarily online this fall.
The change in direction comes with less than two weeks before the start of the fall term. As recently as July 29, ISU said about 28% of courses were expected to be face-to-face, with another 26% hybrid, and 46% online.
Now, ISU expects about 80% of classes to be online. A limited number of classes in the sciences, music, and art will remain face-to-face or hybrid. The semester begins Aug. 17.
“I hope the decision to pivot now, although not without challenges, will afford you needed time to smoothly make this transition and provide consistency for you and your students through the fall term,” Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Aondover Tarhule said in an email to campus.
Loss of testing
In announcing the change, ISU pointed to an action “by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which reallocated, to another location, three testing machines and 5,000 reagent kits the University had ordered.” ISU learned of this at the end of last week.
“Those supplies were expected to be delivered to the University prior to the beginning of the fall term,” ISU President Larry Dietz said in an email Tuesday. “While this is a disappointment, it is exactly why multiple resources must be in place in order to provide testing for our students.”
On-campus testing for symptomatic students is available as of Tuesday at Student Health Services, with results in 24 hours. That’s being done in partnership with local hospitals, Dietz said. ISU is still working with “external vendors to provide additional on-campus testing as well as surveillance testing for asymptomatic students,” but details are not final, he said. ISU says it’s likely “random surveillance testing for asymptomatic students” will be required for those living in residence halls and university apartments.
The federal move “significantly curtailed” on-campus testing capacity, Tarhule said. Another concern was the growing number of cases. Cases have more than doubled in McLean County since the Fourth of July.
“So what we’re trying to do is further de-densify the campus so the number of students we have on campus, we’ll have a degree of confidence we’ll be able to test and track and monitor infections,” Tarhule said.
The housing and meal plan contract cancellation date has been extended, with no penalty, to Aug. 18.
Several ISU students and faculty welcomed the decision.
“I think it’s the best decision,” said Lauren Harris, ISU’s student body president. “And it’s really what the science is telling us. It’s telling us that we really need to be mostly online.”
Harris said one of her big concerns is how the mostly-online experience will impact student fees, which support a wide range of campus activities, including the Bone Student Center and Student Fitness Center. The university already faces a pending federal lawsuit from two students who claim ISU did not refund enough of their mandatory fees after abruptly shifting to online-only classes last spring.
It’s unclear how Tuesday’s decision will impact enrollment, particularly among freshmen. Harris said all her classes were already going to be online.
“We can’t expect normalcy when things aren’t normal right now,” Harris said. “Quite honestly, what we knew as normal doesn’t exist anymore. We have to re-imagine what normal is for us. Right now our normal should be acceptance of the online format, because it truly is what’s best for us.”
Math professor Fusun Akman said she was not surprised by the pivot.
“We were expecting something of this sort to happen in a few weeks,” Akman said. “I’m just happy it occurred much earlier. Everything was pointing in this direction. This was the inevitable conclusion of the path that ISU decided to take.”
Akman has been critical of the ISU administration’s handing of the pandemic, particularly what she described as an overly secret reopening decision-making process. She also criticized ISU leaders for not having a full testing plan in place before announcing that students would return to campus.
“I think we did make a difference,” Akman said. “A larger disaster has been averted. Now, the point is to contain the disaster. And I hope it will be done.”
Justin Vickers, an associate professor of music, said he’d already reworked his voice lessons and opera practicum courses to keep students safe during the pandemic.
Vickers praised the ISU administration’s handling of the crisis thus far.
“It’s clear that we continue to benefit from the leadership of our administration,” Vickers said. “I remain positive. I remain hopeful. And I remain grateful for our leadership and the fact that every turn, in my experience, they have sought to hear the voices of our faculty, staff, and our students alike.”
Hear WGLT’s interview with Provost Aondover Tarhule.
Ryan Denham is Digital Content Director at WGLT in Normal. Charlie Schlenker is News Director at WGLT in Normal.