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Midwestern universities announce plans to restore in-person learning this fall, return normalcy to campuses

Some universities, including DePaul and Marquette, are planning to reopen campuses this fall, giving students better on-hands learning experiences while also providing much-needed financial relief for the institutions after college enrollment plummeted.

DePaul University expects to have students back on campus for in-person learning this fall.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Colleges and universities around the midwest are predicting the campus experience will be closer to normal this fall, with reopened residence halls, increased student activities and even face-to-face instruction for most classes after a year of largely remote learning.

DePaul University says it plans to offer a “full complement of in-person courses” after adopting a hybrid approach of mainly remote classes over the last several months to mitigate the spread of the virus. Nearby Marquette University in Milwaukee says it is planning a “return to a vast majority of classes meeting in-person.” Butler University, which attracts many Illinois students to Indianapolis, told prospective students this week its goal is “to fully restore the on-campus experience for students, faculty, and staff in summer and fall 2021.”

The University of Illinois-Chicago also expects to have students back on campus for in-person learning. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University and Loyola University of Chicago could follow suit, though they have yet to announce their tentative plans.

Those schools are among hundreds of universities nationwide making the call to more fully reopen campuses this fall, giving students better on-hands learning experiences while also providing much-needed financial relief for the institutions as college enrollment has plummeted over the last year.

“Universities are trying to get a word out that they are intending to be open so that it’s more appealing to prospective students,” said Kevin Kruger, the president of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, a professional group. “Prospective students aren’t super excited about studying online.”

And, Kruger says, “the other piece of this is the budgetary impact of the de-densifying campus residence halls and dining halls — that kind of thing has been a very pretty significant blow to higher-end college universities. So I think they’re optimistic about being able to go back to a full slate of residence halls, dining halls and parking.”

Odd year

Many universities have played it safe during the 2020-21 academic year, moving most classes online and limiting the amount of people on campus.

DePaul’s spring quarter looks similar to winter with the majority of its courses being offered online, but that’ll change next quarter.

DePaul and UIC will test the waters this summer by increasing face-to-face instruction and classroom size. Meanwhile, UIUC and Loyola are still weighing their options, though they are expected to reveal their tentative plans in the next week or two.

Kruger believes that institutions will feel an increased pressure to reopen as other surrounding schools do.

“Nobody’s going to want to be left out here and be too conservative when their peers are wide open,” Kruger said. “So I think that that is absolutely a factor, it’s a very competitive business.”

Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Marquette University in Milwaukee is planning to hold most classes in-person this fall.
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Students want to return

Lily Greenberg returned to the UIUC’s campus with the belief that classes would gradually transition from online to in-person over the course of the semester. But that hasn’t been the case.

Not that she minds.

“All the common areas, like the dining hall, there are places to sit, there’s little cafes and stuff [where] everybody kind of does their class,” Greenberg said. “So it doesn’t really feel like I’m completely disconnected. My friends can go sit at a cafe and do our classes together so it feels like I’m kind of going somewhere and working. It’s not just like sitting in my room all day, which is nice.”

UIUC has been widely praised for its COVID-19 protocols, which includes a rigorous testing program. That’s why Greenberg said she would feel comfortable with the return of some in-person classes.

Other students, like Nick Palazzolo, are hoping to get as much of the full college experience as possible this fall.

Palazzolo, a senior at Warren Township High School in Gurnee who plans to go to DePaul this fall, believes campuses should reopen as long as they do so with proper mitigation to keep students and faculty safe.

“It’ll mean more than most people will know,” Palazzolo said. “ ... School isn’t the same, without the social aspect. It’s one of those things in life where you don’t miss it until it’s actually gone. Just being able to get on a campus whether it be a high school or college, people are gonna thrive on interaction simply because of the fact that they haven’t had it.”

More questions than answers

Still, exactly how classes and other experiences on campus will look this fall has yet to be finalized at most schools.

Will mask-wearing and social distancing still be required? How many students will be allowed in classrooms or lecture halls? Will students be able to attend sporting events or other on-campus events?

“Those calls will be made a little closer once we get better public health guidance,” Kruger said.