Fall semester looks different at local colleges, universities

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Prospective students tour Dominican University in River Forest on Aug. 14, 2020. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Students at Catholic colleges and universities across the Archdiocese of Chicago are heading back to class, but what that looks like — and where it happens — depends on where they go to school.

Loyola University and DePaul University, the largest Catholic universities in the area, both announced in August that nearly all classes will be taught online and residence halls will, for the most part, be closed.

Meanwhile, Dominican University in River Forest and Saint Xavier University will offer classes in a variety of formats, from in person to hybrid to fully online.

Loyola, which announced its decision to close residence halls the first week of August, did so because leaders believed that doing otherwise would jeopardize the health and safety of students, faculty and staff and the wider community.

“The health and safety of our community is our top priority,” said David Slavsky, the university’s vice provost and director of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. “We have tried to be true to that statement and that position.”

Loyola each year brings 17,000 students to campuses in densely populated areas, Slavsky said. Doing that in the middle of a pandemic — one in which both the United States as a whole and Illinois have seen rising numbers of new infections — would not honor that commitment.

“It was not only the right decision, it was the only decision,” said Slavsky, who is also a physics professor.

The university had planned on beginning with in-person learning, but when Illinois’ infection rates began to increase, especially in the college-aged demographic, the administration chose to begin the semester with remote learning.

The calculation was similar at DePaul University, which announced on Aug. 12 that its residence halls would be closed to nearly all students for the fall semester.

The move came almost a week after the Aug. 6 announcement that someone on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus had tested positive for COVID-19.

DePaul last year enrolled more than 22,000 students.

To stay in the residence halls, students must apply for an exception because they need university housing to navigate college safely or because they need to be on campus to participate in sports practices or because they are in the small number of classes and labs that will meet in person.

Students who participate in those classes and labs will be asked to use an app to track   possible COVID-19 symptoms.

An Aug. 12 announcement to students signed by DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban and other administrators said, in part, “We know the news about fall is disappointing to many of you. You were looking forward to learning alongside your friends. If you are an incoming student, you were looking forward to discovering new friends. After your absence during the last few months, we were looking forward to seeing more of you, too. Students bring life to campus, and we miss you.

“External factors that are beyond DePaul’s control have changed the environment in which we hoped to return.”

At Dominican, where the majority of the 2,200 students are commuters, university leaders are planning a hybrid program, with some classes entirely online, some with in person and online components and some in person.

“We want our students, even in the present climate, to be able to persist in their education and to have the companionship that they need from their faculty and staff to do that successfully,” said Claire Noonan, vice president of ministry and mission at Dominican. “It’s key to our mission that we provide a relationship-centered experience, and having an in-person experience at some level is a critical part of forming those relationships. Given the health restrictions that are in place, we have to find creative ways to foster and form those.”

While Dominican has long offered online classes and some programs are entirely online, students were clear that they wanted to be on campus, Dominican leaders said, so they spent the summer working to make that happen.

“We said early on in May, it’s our intention to have some face-to-face,” said Jill Albin-Hill, vice president for operations and technology. “We went to work, seeing what could be safely done.”

Most classrooms could accommodate about half the usual number of students, she said, which means classes must be held in rooms larger than those they usually used.

The university prioritized classes for freshmen, especially freshman seminars, and lab classes.

“I think we’ve done really well,” Albin-Hill said in early August. “The last report I had, we’re at about 40 percent density, with a third face-to-face, a third hybrid and a third online.”

Dominican is also working to provide spaces for students to study or do online coursework on campus between in-person classes, Albin-Hill said. That includes a $5 million project to enclose a library terrace and add 20 study rooms that was planned before the pandemic struck.

It also will use its Priory Campus, about a mile away, to house students, meaning every student who does live on campus will have a single room.

Albin-Hill said the university is using a multi-layered approach to mitigating risk.

“There’s not one thing that will do it,” she said. “I would like to see us have two mitigations at all times. These are layers of protection. We’re doing masks. Then distance is the one we prefer, but if we can’t be sure about distance, then there’s plexiglass or face shields.”

Any student gatherings will have to be in small groups, she said. The school will use the same mobile app as DePaul and is asking students to self-monitor any COVID-19 symptoms, and anyone who is ill must stay home or isolate on campus.

While Dominican has been using data to help plan the fall program, it has also used it to reach out to students and their families. Many live in areas of Chicago and the suburbs that have been hit hard by COVID-19, Albin-Hill said, and Dominican has partnered with community groups to help connect families with resources that they might need.

“Our size is a benefit to us at this point,” she said.  “We’re plugged into our community.”

In the end, Albin-Hill said, it will be up to everyone to follow the protocols.

“If we don’t all take individual responsibility, we won’t have a healthy community,” she said.

Administrators at Saint Xavier University in Chicago are following a plan similar to that at Dominican University, with classes offered in modes varying from completely in-person to completely online.

It has also worked to reduce density on campus and in its residence halls, turning triple rooms into doubles and providing a number of single rooms at students’ request.

“Our students will begin to move in on Aug. 20 and will be given specific staggered arrival windows to promote limited in-person interaction,” said Katy Thompson, dean of students. “All students are who are arriving from travel advisory states will be required to follow guidelines of the Illinois Emergency Travel Order. We also encourage our resident students to only bring items that are essential to campus, as we’re prepared to pivot and close the halls in the event the state of Illinois mandates such an order.”

Educators at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary have been making the same adjustments, moving furniture and figuring out how many students they can have in socially distanced classrooms. With about 140 men in the seminary, it is a far smaller population than Dominicans, and the vast majority of them, hands down, wanted to return in person, said Father John Kartje, Mundelein’s rector/president.

“It’s not just the academics,” he said. “It’s the formation and spiritual direction that they want to do in person.”

Seminarians will be required to stay on campus for two weeks after arriving, and then will be allowed to go to their teaching parishes in the Chicago area, observing all of the social distancing guidelines there as well. They also will participate in online meetings and gatherings in those parishes to learn how they work, Kartje said.

“I’m inviting all of us to be wise in how we spend our time and not going out unless there’s an important need to,” he said.

Mundelein also has outfitted several classrooms to be able to stream instruction online to students who have to isolate themselves because of illness or possible exposure to COVID-19, and to all students after Thanksgiving break. The seminary, like many colleges, will have students complete the first semester at home.

Other academic programs at the university will continue in person as well, Kartje said, but without the same opportunities to gather informally and socialize.



  • catholic colleges
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19

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