When students begin classes at the University of Northern Iowa next week they’ll notice not only a new culture of wearing masks but also physical spaces that have been changed since COVID-19 emerged last spring.
The university has invested substantial time and money to create a safe and productive learning environment, officials said. That includes purchasing 25,000 masks to distribute to faculty, staff and students, installing Plexiglass barriers across campus and offering COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. All faculty, staff, and students are completing new training to ensure everyone knows the best practices for a safe return.
Classrooms have been altered for physical distancing guidelines and public spaces in the Maucker Union and Rod Library have been reconfigured to allow for social distancing. Some changes were relatively small, like dedicated study rooms set up across campus for students to use between classes. Others were larger, at the student health clinic where windows have been removed and doors installed to allow people to enter and exit for COVID-19 testing while maintaining six feet of separation.
Even the move-in process itself was different this year, with student arrivals staggered over the last two weeks. Regan Wilkie, a first-year music major, said he felt good about the semester.
“I feel really confident about the way UNI is taking action for this whole dilemma right now,” he said while moving in Wednesday. “I’m feeling like I can be safe on campus, making sure everybody’s wearing a mask in the buildings and all that.”
Since May, hundreds of people from all across campus have spent thousands of hours preparing for this unique year in countless ways. Among their achievements was ensuring classrooms use no more than 40% of their capacity while allowing more than 80% of fall classes to include at least some face-to-face instruction.
“There’s no template for reopening,” said library dean Theresa Westbrock, who chaired the facilities use subcommittee. “We're committed to flexibility, patience and creativity. That's what will get us through all of this.
“People have a team mentality here at UNI. I think people really feel part of the community and part of the team and we're doing this for the team, our students, our community, our peers.”
The library has moved furniture, installed Plexiglass barriers at the check-out desk, cafe register and Learning Center tables with the goal of making it a welcoming but safe environment.
UNI leaders say the success of this semester depends on faculty, staff and students protecting the Panther community together by wearing masks and physical distancing both on and off campus. Anyone coming to campus must also do a symptom check each day before leaving home to help protect everyone else on campus. A digital symptoms survey is expected to launch next week.
‘’We’re asking everyone to do their part to help keep campus safe,” said Shelley O’Connell, executive director of Student Health & Well-being Services. It’s important to stay home if you have symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever, headache, loss of taste or smell, cough, shortness of breath or others listed here, she said.
For those who have COVID-19 symptoms beyond their baseline or who have had close contact (less than 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes) with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19, testing is available at the Student Health Center, O’Connell said. Anyone who feels they need tested should call first (319-273-2009 option #1) to be evaluated by staff.
One UNI student who recovered from COVID-19 over the summer urges everyone on campus to understand coronavirus is real and can infect young people, too. He had attended a friend’s birthday party in a crowded Cedar Falls home where no one wore masks.
“Don’t wait until you get the virus to start taking it seriously,” senior Tyler Hospodarsky told InsideUNI. “Don't be like me. I waited until I got the virus and then I was like, ‘Oh my god, who did I affect?’ It was terrifying.”
“It's not about me as a 21-year-old person fighting the virus for a few days and recovering,” he said. “It's about who I gave it to right after that. I could have transmitted the virus when I didn't even know I had it. And I felt normal for two days. So that's what's scary.”
In a recent editorial, President Mark A. Nook wrote that this year UNI will be hard at work both on protecting the campus community and also working hard to make campus a more welcoming place for everyone.
“I couldn’t be more confident in UNI’s faculty and staff, or more proud of our talented students and alumni who are eager to change the world,” he wrote “We don’t have all the answers and we can’t prepare for every contingency. But we know the harsh realities that are in front of us. We have a clear purpose and strong values that guide us in creating innovative and ethical solutions to our challenges. And as we have for 144 years, with a strong spirit of community, we will rise to the occasion in this unprecedented year.”