clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

With late start to fall term, some local universities learn from others’ COVID mistakes

DePaul, Northwestern and the University of Chicago have all closely watched the experience of other schools that brought students back last month.

Alyssa Isberto, a senior studying economics at DePaul University, poses for a picture at DePaul University in Lincoln Park Friday afternoon, Sept. 11, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Alyssa Isberto, a senior studying economics at DePaul University, will only be on campus for work this fall since all her classes and extracurriculars are virtual. DePaul, which is on quarters, began class Sept. 9.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For a small subset of local universities with later fall start dates than many schools around the country, waiting to mid- to late-September has had an added benefit this year.

The ever-changing nature of the coronavirus pandemic has rendered every additional day critical to adapting their fall plans, and allowed them to learn from the experience of universities that started last month, according to these schools.

“We always said we were going to follow developments up until the day we started,” said Luke Figora, senior associate vice president and chief risk and compliance officer at Northwestern University. “We saw a number of different things, developments at colleges and universities across the country having some challenges.”

Northwestern, DePaul University and the University of Chicago all follow academic quarters, with start dates ranging from Sept. 9 at DePaul to Sept. 29 at UChicago. These later start dates have allowed schools to glean lessons from other universities in Chicago and across the nation, drawing insight from their COVID-19 responses and adjusting accordingly.

On Aug. 28, just shy of three weeks before Northwestern’s start of classes Sept. 16, the university announced it was recommending all freshmen and sophomores not return to campus to greatly lower the number of students in residence halls and school buildings.

Figora told the Sun-Times that university officials made the decision a day earlier, conclusing that the move was necessary in light of “headlines of thousands of kids in quarantine” at other schools, as well as a rising number of COVID-19 cases in Illinois and suburban Cook County.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more than 700 people tested positive between Aug. 24 and Sept. 2, with 95% of those cases among students. The state’s flagship school, with a twice-weekly mandatory testing plan, had been a model for higher education institutions across the country.

Northwestern originally provided students the choice of whether they felt comfortable returning to campus, Figora said, but not enough students opted for staying home to sufficiently reduce the density of students on campus.

“As we saw numbers start to true up, it didn’t create as much de-densification in the undergraduate population,” Figora said. “It became more clear to us that having fewer students on campus would be helpful to navigate this storm.”

UChicago Provost Ka Yee C. Lee also noted that officials were drawing lesson from other schools in an Aug. 26 announcement laying out testing, contact tracing and isolation frameworks for the fall.

“We will continue to assess the pandemic as it evolves to determine whether we need to change course,” Lee said in the announcement. “We are also closely monitoring the experiences of other universities — their challenges as well as successes in returning to campus.”

‘Completely dead’

DePaul senior Alyssa Isberto visited campus for work Tuesday on the eve of the first day of classes. With all her classes and extracurriculars online, Isberto’s job is the only thing bringing her to campus. The 21-year-old typically commutes to campus from Skokie, she said.

Campus was “completely dead” Tuesday, Isberto said, with communal couches replaced by single seats and sparse numbers of students walking around.

“It’s so different from what I was used to,” said Isberto, who is also student body president. Still, “I missed it, I’m not going to lie.”

Isberto has served on the student engagement committee of the Restarting Campus Operations Task Force this summer. Even starting a couple weeks later than other universities has allowed DePaul to evaluate what is — and isn’t — working at other schools, Isberto said.

The school has doubled down on a campus pledge encouraging students not to host or attend parties, Isberto said, referencing a spike in coronavirus cases at the University of Notre Dame following an off-campus party.

“We all have friends from other schools — Loyola UIC, Northwestern,” Isberto said. “When we talk to one another and other students, seeing how their university is doing with their COVID-19 response, when we like a certain idea, we see if it can get implemented at DePaul.”