The University of Chicago unveiled its latest plans to reopen campus for fall quarter, announcing Tuesday afternoon that the school will offer a combination of in-person and remote learning, and outlining the public health protocols it plans to adopt.
“Our approach is informed by guidance from the federal, state, and city levels, including the Restore Illinois plan and the city and state’s most recent guidance for higher education,” wrote U. of C. President Robert J. Zimmer in an email. “University policies and procedures have been developed in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and respond to infections among our community members.”
The quarter will begin on Sept. 29 for undergraduates and most graduate students, though the professional schools will start up slightly earlier. In-person instruction will end by Thanksgiving, with the last week of classes, as well as the week dedicated to final exams, taking place remotely. Zimmer wrote that “priority for in-person classes will be given to courses that serve new students,” and that there will be a “range of remote course options” for those unable to return to school.
Face coverings will be required in all buildings, and elsewhere on campus when other people are present. All students, faculty and staff are being asked to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19. As the Herald reported Monday, the University of Chicago Medical Center is establishing a contact tracing team to monitor COVID-19 cases among the campus community.
In classrooms and spaces across campus, seating capacity will sharply decrease. According to a guidance document attached to Zimmer’s email, classrooms, lecture halls and dining halls will, in many cases, have the number of seats they contain reduced to a third or a quarter of their original capacity.
The same holds for undergraduate residence halls, which will be reconfigured to allow for social distancing: all rooms will be single-occupancy, reducing capacity across the on-campus housing system by about 40%. That means, Zimmer wrote, that the U. of C. can only guarantee housing to first-year students, though there will be space for a subset of returning students.
Other students who had planned to return to dormitories that no longer have space for them will be required to find off-campus housing in Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods. (The school will waive its new requirement that all second-year students remain in campus housing.)
“There’s a lot of anxiety from what I’ve seen for students scrambling to figure out where they will live or if they can live in Hyde Park,” said Parul Kumar, a rising third-year, who noted that the school normally guarantees students housing for all four years. “The university didn’t commit to being able to ensure housing for all students who need it like their original guarantee. And while I know being in a pandemic changes a lot, opening up Hyde Park and housing for students has material effects on actual Chicago residents with gentrification.”
She expressed concern for the future of long-time residents of the South Side: “the university’s decision-making could further push out residents from their homes.”
The school has said it will provide increases in funding for students on financial aid who are moving off-campus, in order to help cover living expenses.
Kumar also questioned whether bringing students back to campus would be safe, especially in instances where they felt it would be necessary to attend in-person classes. “The university also didn’t commit to providing masks for students, but is relying on students to self-regulate symptoms before going into buildings. I think (it is) irresponsible, because if some in-person courses are requirements, people will have to enter those spaces,” she said. “I can imagine students not doing the best form of self-regulating to be able to keep up in class.”
Kumar and Marla Anderson, another rising third-year, both said they thought the school should have implemented more flexible policies during remote learning in spring quarter — canceling final exams, reducing tuition, and expanding mental health resources.
Anderson noted that remote learning in the spring was difficult for a lot of students. “Students were dealing with difficult schoolwork on top of relocation, family sicknesses, death, and who knows what else. At times, I felt like the university was more concerned with keeping the rigor of coursework than being sympathetic and empathetic to students and faculty,” she said. “I just wish I could say I felt like they cared about us on a personal level, as people and not just students.”
She also worried that reopening would be dangerous for other residents of Hyde Park and nearby community areas — like South Shore — among those hit hardest by the pandemic. “UChicago students come from a wide variety of areas and having them all come back to campus at once...is both unfair to the UChicago community and, more importantly to me, the other Chicago residents that live here,” she said. “I think reopening the school is going to negatively affect South Side Chicago because we share this environment, and I don’t think it’s being taken as seriously as (it) needs to be.”
Like Kumar, Anderson was also unsettled by the university’s housing plans, saying that they would “speed up” the gentrification of the Woodlawn and Hyde Park neighborhoods. She was especially frustrated by next year's housing policy, given that “the school released an email in response to the recent protest for racial justice saying they’d put time into learning about how their presence has and continues to negatively impact native Chicagoans.”
The announcement also contained brief details about the Lab School, as well as the three charter schools operated by the U. of C. All four schools have different plans to allow for instruction in the fall that is in-person, remote, or some mix of the two.
At Lab, the youngest students will “have priority for onsite, in-person learning,” wrote Zimmer. He noted that, within the charter schools, the U. of C. is “working to provide additional supports to address the mental health and social emotional needs of the Charter community in this challenging period.”
Zimmer also wrote in his email that laboratory and non-laboratory research had been resuming in phases, with the first researchers returning to campus on June 15. “We have been encouraged by the early implementation of health and safety measures,” he wrote.
A pair of faculty unions criticized the school’s process in putting together a reopening plan this Monday, saying in statements to the Herald that the plan had been assembled without adequate input from most faculty.
"Reopening decisions have so far been made behind closed doors, without substantive direct involvement of elected representatives of various stakeholders, including labor unions," wrote the campus advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, noting that the faculty senate had not been given the chance to vote on the reopening plans. "Absent a democratic decision-making procedure, and absent much essential information such as the exact level of risk, including predicted numbers of infections and deaths...we see no reason to believe that any kind of instructional reopening in the Fall will be safe."
In response, a U. of C. spokesperson said that "more than 40 faculty members from across the University" participated in planning working groups, and that faculty "will continue to provide leadership as we move to implementation."