MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho campus reopened Monday after a six-month pandemic closure to greet mask-wearing students headed to their first fall semester classes.
The university has reinstated in-person instruction in a limited capacity until the fall break beginning Nov. 20, at that point instruction will be delivered online-only as students will not be asked to return to campus.
Most UI courses are being delivered in a hybrid-flexible, or “HyFlex,” instruction model where students are put in a rotation between in-classroom and online learning. Classrooms are limited to 50% capacity by splitting courses up into smaller student groups that meet less frequently than usual.
Despite the safety precautions UI has taken – including required COVID-19 tests, mandatory face coverings and increased sanitation measures – a number of students have expressed concern about the administration’s decision to reinstate face-to-face learning.
Senior Kailyn Eagy said she recognizes the effort administrators have made to establish safety precautions, but she fears it is not enough to keep the campus community safe.
“I’ve still heard of large parties happening with attendees taking no precautions,” she said. “I’m also not satisfied with the university’s approach to testing. I had several friends have to wait two or more weeks to get their results back. Even then, it makes no sense to test people weeks ahead of school starting and say they’ll still be healthy through the rest of the year. Unless you’re going to have us all frequently tested, it makes very little sense.”
Last week, UI President C. Scott Green sent out an email to students with a subject line that read, “It is Up to You to Keep Our Campus Open.” The email addressed reports the administration received of student parties where social distancing was not practiced and face coverings were not worn.
“We will place students into our disciplinary process who flagrantly violate city ordinances and institutional policy which, if found responsible, could lead to suspension or expulsion,” Green wrote in the email.
UI junior Jordan Hess said this stern call for reform did not bring him solace about the current situation on campus and in town.
“I am disappointed in the administration – it’s almost as if our president doesn’t understand that 19-year-old students are going to behave like 19-year-old students,” Hess said. “I’m not going to say that every single student is going to be irresponsible, but there are enough who are not prioritizing their school work over partying and socializing that even the good ones are going to end up getting exposed.”
Hess said he believes instructors have been doing a great job adapting to the dynamic situation.
Despite vocal opposition to in-person instruction – including an open letter to Green which had almost 300 faculty signatories – instructors were required to adhere to the HyFlex teaching model this fall with few exceptions. They could go through human resources to opt for remote, online-only instruction only if they have a documented medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19 or live with someone who does.
Jennifer Johnson-Leung, an assistant professor of mathematics, said she believes the requirement for medical documentation is a roadblock which weeds out faculty who haven’t always had consistent access to medical care.
“From the instructor perspective, people who have established relationships with their physicians are able to get a medical documentation that says it’s too high of a risk for them to teach in person – in a way people who don’t have that kind of an established relationship might not be able to do or feel as able to do,” she said. “If you have that ongoing relationship, you can phone the doctor for paperwork.”
In Latah County where UI is located, there were 16 positive COVID-19 tests reported since Friday. Nine of those new patients are younger than 20, and six others are younger than 30. This brings the county’s number of confirmed cases this year to 183.
According to the UI website, 25 UI employees and students tested positive between Aug. 14 and Aug. 21. About 2,860 tests were administered.
UI history professor Dale Graden said the number of universities around the United States that closed soon after opening up to in-person instruction due to case surges – such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – makes him concerned for the coming weeks on UI’s campus.
“I find it deeply ironic that the president of the University of Idaho is asking these kids to put on face masks and stay 6 feet away. Of course they’re going to get together and socialize,” Graden said. “I’m terrified.”
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