Illinois State return-to-classes met with excitement, hesitation

The campus quad, walkways and student center were sparsely populated Monday, the first day of classes. About 80% of courses are online, said university spokesman Eric Jome.

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Illinois State University’s campus was far quieter on Aug. 17, 2020, the first day of classes, than in previous years, said university spokesman Eric Jome.

Illinois State University’s campus was far quieter on Aug. 17, the first day of classes, than in previous years, said university spokesman Eric Jome.

Clare Proctor/Sun-Times

Lizzie O’Dwyer hadn’t seen anyone besides her boyfriend, whom she lives with, for five months.

But by noon on Monday, Illinois State University's first day of classes, O’Dwyer had already attended two in-person classes, each with about a dozen students.

“I was definitely nervous last night, when I realized I’d have to go see people,” said O’Dwyer, a senior from Evergreen Park who’s studying music education. “I’ve lived here all summer and haven’t gone out at all.”

Students and faculty took on the first day of class at Illinois State with a mix of hesitation and excitement. With about 80% of classes online this fall, according to university spokesman Eric Jome, far fewer students were in the quad and student center than on a typical first day. Professors led in-person classes with masks, and sometimes face shields; stickers marked seats to be left open for social distancing.

About 3,950 students are living on campus this fall as of Monday morning, Jome said. About 6,000 students usually live in dorms and on-campus apartments. And the move-in process, three days in the past, was spread out over 10 days to allow social distancing.

ISU has a total student body of about 20,000.

Illinois State freshman Bella Vermillion, 17, throws a frisbee on the campus quad on the first day of class, Aug. 17, 2020. Vermillion said she’s “not really worried” about attending in-person classes.

Illinois State freshman Bella Vermillion, 17, throws a frisbee on the campus quad. Vermillion said she’s “not really worried” about attending in-person classes.

Clare Proctor/Sun-Times

Freshman Bella Vermillion, 17, arrived on campus from Abilene, Texas. She said moving in was easier than it likely would have been if masses of students showed up all at once.

Since she’s studying music education, not all of Vermillion’s classes will be online. But she’s excited about in-person classes.

“I’m not really worried,” Vermillion said. “The school is taking a lot of precautions — I feel good.”

One of O’Dwyer’s in-person classes met outside Monday; the other, in a spaced-out classroom. Worrying about wiping down her desk and other health precautions was “a little bit distracting,” she said.

Illinois State senior Lizzie O’Dwyer sits on the university’s quad on Monday. She had already attended two in-person classes on the first day.

Illinois State senior Lizzie O’Dwyer sits in the university’s quad Monday. She had already attended two in-person classes on the first day.

Clare Proctor/Sun-Times

O’Dwyer, 21, trusts her classmates and said the small group of students in her major seems to be taking the pandemic seriously. Still, she added, it didn’t take long for parties to start once students were welcomed back to campus.

“I don’t blame students — I blame the university for not going fully remote,” O’Dwyer said. “Letting people back in the dorms was a mistake.”

Learning in the lab

John Sedbrook, a genetics professor, is teaching two online classes this fall. Originally, one of Sedbrook’s 50-person lectures was to be in-person, in a classroom he said only “20 students would fit in.” The class switched to a different room, but Sedbrook said he still wouldn’t have been comfortable. The university made the “right decision” to move nearly all courses online, he said.

Sedbrook still works with about a dozen undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students in his lab, where they are developing a plant — pennycress — for biofuel. Researchers work in shifts most days to limit the number of people in the lab; they also wear masks and social distance when possible.

“This is the safest place to be,” Sedbrook said of his lab. “We know sterile techniques, and the lab is built to space out. We’re constantly aware of safety in the lab on a regular day here.”

Doctoral student Maliheh Esfahanian, 33, works in professor John Sedbrook’s lab developing pennycress for biofuel.

Doctoral student Maliheh Esfahanian, 33, works in professor John Sedbrook’s lab developing pennycress for biofuel.

Clare Proctor/Sun-Times

Maliheh Esfahanian, a 33-year-old doctoral student, has worked in Sedbrook’s lab for more than five years. The university deemed research essential, so lab work continued during the pandemic.

Esfahanian, who’s from Iran, said she “really wanted to be in the lab,” despite hesitations about many students returning to campus.

“I feel a little stressed,” Esfahanian said. “Working in the summer, no one was around us. Now, there are people all around you. But everyone seems to have masks on.”

Cameron Spese, a senior studying biology who’s worked in the lab for a year, said “you need to be hands-on to learn.” The 21-year-old from Mahomet, just outside Champaign, said the lab experience is also crucial if he decides to attend graduate school, since many applications require research experience.

Illinois State professor John Sedbrook (left) discusses lab results with doctoral student Brice Jarvis, Aug. 17, 2020. The lab has continued operating throughout the pandemic.

Illinois State professor John Sedbrook (left) discusses lab results with doctoral student Brice Jarvis. The lab has continued operating throughout the pandemic.

Clare Proctor/Sun-Times

Sedbrook is concerned about the effect the lack of in-person interaction will have on the mental health of his online students. He said he hopes to hold an outdoor, spaced-out field trip where students can remove their masks and see each other’s faces.

Still, in the foreseeable future, Sedbrook anticipates virtual learning will be the new normal. He won’t feel comfortable teaching large classes in-person until there’s a vaccine, as well as improved testing and contact tracing, he added.

“It’s going to be a slow improvement, though nobody can say for sure,” Sedbrook said. “I’d be shocked if we return to in-person in the spring.”

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