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Illinois State University moves most classes online after federal government 'reallocates' testing supplies

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ISU file photo

Traffic moves west on College Avenue near the Illinois State University pedestrian overpass on the campus in Normal on March 11. 


NORMAL — Most classes at Illinois State University will be online-only when the fall semester begins later this month, officials announced Tuesday.

President Larry Dietz said in an email to students and faculty that the university learned late last week it would not receive some testing equipment and supplies that were expected before classes started. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “reallocated” the equipment and supplies to other agencies, he said. HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

“While this is a disappointment, it is exactly why multiple resources must be in place in order to provide testing for our students,” said Dietz, who said testing would be provided at Student Health Services for students who experience symptoms.

ISU file photo

A lone Illinois State University police officer walks through bright, blooming trees April 27 as he patrols the school's desolate quad after the coronavirus sent students home.

The news came less than a month after the university rolled out details of its Redbirds Return plan that had said classes would be a mix of online, in-person and hybrid offerings, depending on the subject. Some faculty members had continued to raise concerns about the availability of testing, the enforcement of mask requirements and other issues.

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“ISU has been really, really struggling with what the right formula for what the fall semester will look like,” Normal Mayor Chris Koos said Tuesday afternoon. “It seems that they are erring to the side of caution, and I applaud them for that.”

Koos said the university made the right decision in light of a recent uptick of cases in McLean County. While he acknowledged it would affect the local economy, Koos said “it’s more important to keep people safe than count dollars.”

He added that it is likely that some students will return to the community to online courses from their apartments.

For Tori Puffer, a 23-year-old music education student who lives in Normal, the university’s announcement came as a relief.

While she acknowledged that online learning can present challenges, Puffer had already talked to her professors about taking classes online because of lung problems that make her fall into a “high-risk” category.

Music education courses typically involve one-on-one lessons, ensemble work and duets, which can be difficult to replicate in online courses. She is registered for 13 credit hours this semester after dropping one course that wouldn’t be worth the money to take online. Still, Puffer is pleased with the decision announced Tuesday.

“I hate online learning, and it is not an effective way to learn for me,” said Puffer, who plays trombone, “but I want ISU to make all of our classes online for our safety.”

Normal, ISU, Heartland Community College and McLean County Unit 5 as well as several local businesses have formed a COVID-19 task force to formulate an educational campaign in an effort to keep people safe. Koos said the task force expects to release more information about their plan next week.

Dietz file

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz speaks during a news conference in July while Julie Jones, chairperson of the ISU Board of Trustees, left, and Aondover Tarhule, university vice president for academic affairs and provost, listen.

Dietz said the university would continue to offer classes that require a face-to-face component — sciences, music and art — in person when necessary.

“I realize that this decision, being made very close to the beginning of the fall semester, is not ideal,” he said. “However, this decision was based in science, guidance from public health officials, and takes into consideration the university’s current testing capabilities and other resources.”

The housing and meal plan contract cancellation date has been extended to Aug. 18, the second full day of classes. Safety measures within university housing include social distancing in all common areas, no triple or quad occupancy rooms, enhanced cleaning and no off-campus or overnight guests.

Sarah Greenberg, a graduate student in the communications sciences and disorders department, said she was frustrated with the timing of the university’s decision. She said a move to remote classes should have been announced in May or June, not two weeks before classes began.

“It feels unfair to students who have signed leases,” said Greenberg, of Normal. “I think it’s coming way late — I’m glad that it’s happening even if it is late — it just seems like now they’re going to have to backtrack and people are going to be really confused.”

Prior to ISU’s announcement, Greenberg chose to take online classes this fall due to having a weaker immune system. She was also concerned with how masks would be enforced for in person classes and the availability of COVID testing to students.

McLean County Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight said schools and institutions of higher education are facing a challenging situation as they prepare for the fall semester.

“They are tasked with weighing the full spectrum of benefits and risks of both in-person and virtual learning options and are making constant adjustments to their plans as new information and guidance becomes available,” she said. “We support all of the hard work and effort that is being put in by all our community institutions to promote a learning environment that is as safe as possible for students, faculty, staff, and the community.”

Paul Swiech contributed to this story. 

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Read President Dietz's email below:

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff Members,

For 162 years, Illinois State University has opened its academic year in an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. As we make final preparations for our 163rd year, I ask that you add another noun to the mix—vigilance.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with challenges we have never before faced. The manner in which we meet those challenges—the way we practice vigilance at the beginning of this semester—will play a central role in how we fare this year. I urge you to review Illinois State’s health and safety protocols that can be found in the University’s Redbirds Return plan, as well as on the Coronavirus website. Pay close attention to your physical health and mental well-being and follow all health and safety guidance.

I also ask that you review the University’s core values section of our strategic plan, Educate • Connect • Elevate. Of those seven foundational values, I would submit that the value of Respect gains even more importance as together, we travel this uncharted and uncertain path.

I also want to share a variety of recent updates. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, and we are closely monitoring information provided by the Governor and the Illinois Department of Public Health. Our COVID planning teams are studying how significant increases in positive cases throughout the state and nation will impact students, faculty, and staff as well as university operations as we begin the fall semester. As I have said numerous times over the last months, the health, wellness, and safety of the entire campus community must be our top priority and at the center of our decision-making.

Today is no exception as I provide updated information regarding the fall term.


Larry H. Dietz


Testing Options

Illinois State continues to finalize plans for on-campus testing for the fall term. As of August 4, 2020, we will provide testing at Student Health Services for students who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms through partnerships with our local hospitals. In addition, we continue to have discussions with external vendors to provide additional on-campus testing as well as surveillance testing for asymptomatic students. For students with symptoms, test results are expected to be provided to Student Health Services within a 24-hour period. In addition, the state testing site located at the Interstate Center in Bloomington continues to be available for all students, faculty and staff and is free of charge. Specific information about testing protocols and procedures will be provided to students, faculty and staff as it becomes available.

Our planning teams continue to pay close attention to best practices regarding COVID-19 testing on college campuses and will continue to explore additional testing options in the weeks to come. It is important to note that as cases rise in Illinois and across the country, equipment and supplies necessary to conduct testing are in extremely high demand. At the end of last week, the University was informed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reallocated, to other agencies, equipment and testing kits that the University had ordered. Those supplies were expected to be delivered to the University prior to the beginning of the fall term. While this is a disappointment, it is exactly why multiple resources must be in place in order to provide testing for our students.

Classroom Instruction

Because we anticipate testing supplies will be in short supply and in order to de-densify academic facilities, we are moving more fall courses to online formats. Courses that require a face-to-face component such as those in the sciences, music, and art, will remain face-to-face or hybrid. I realize that this decision, being made very close to the beginning of the fall semester, is not ideal. However, this decision was based in science, guidance from public health officials, and takes into consideration the University’s current testing capabilities and other resources.

Students should check their fall course schedules in the coming days for changes in course formats. Questions about changes to fall schedules should be directed to academic advisors. Rest assured that faculty have been working all summer to ensure that courses can easily transition to online formats if necessary.

On-Campus Housing and Dining Contracts

The housing and meal plan contract cancellation date has been extended, with no financial penalty, to Tuesday, August 18, the second full day of classes. As we approach the fall, we want to provide students and families with every opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to live in a residential housing environment during uncertain and unprecedented times. Contact University Housing Services for more information at 309-438-8611 or visit the Housing and Dining portal to cancel your contract.

As has been mentioned previously, safety measures within the residence halls and university apartments include, but are not limited to, physical distancing in all common spaces, no triple or quad occupancy rooms, enhanced cleaning of restrooms and high-touch surfaces, quarantine and isolation protocols, and no off-campus or overnight guests. In addition, students will be required to wear a face covering in the residence halls when outside of their residence hall room. As of today, we expect that random surveillance testing for asymptomatic students will be required of students living in residence halls and university apartments. More information will be provided about testing as it is available. University Housing will modify and add to these safety measures as necessary throughout the year.

If the number of COVID-19 cases significantly increases in our area, the Governor enacts a stay-at-home order, and/or Illinois State experiences a significant number of cases of COVID-19, students will be asked to return to their permanent residences unless extenuating circumstances create a need to remain on campus. Although the University has spent endless hours planning for the fall semester and allocated extensive resources in order to provide the best on-campus experience possible, we cannot guarantee a risk-free environment. It will take all of us sharing in the responsibility to keep each other healthy in order to remain on campus this fall.

Coronavirus continues to create many challenges and I thank you for your patience and flexibility. As we begin the fall semester, please follow the health and safety guidelines posted throughout campus and on social media. In addition, I encourage you to join me in taking the Redbird Pledge so we can do our part to uphold a healthy, safe campus community for the entire Redbird family. Although this fall will be quite different than previous years, I look forward to seeing you on the Quad and in the Bone Student Center, Milner Library, the Student Fitness Center and many other places on campus.


Recognize anyone? 32 images from homecoming at Illinois State University

Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.

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