Illinois public colleges and universities present reopening plans to state legislators

By Zachary Clingenpeel, Co-Director of Photography

In a show of return to in-person education, representatives from Illinois State University joined the two House committees’ Aug. 5 virtual hearing from a conference room on their campus to present what reopening would look like for ISU. Zachary Clingenpeel

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Illinois and a new semester right around the corner, representatives from public institutions of higher education across the state met with Illinois legislators for a hearing to discuss what a new normal might look like on campuses.

The hearing, which was publicly broadcast from the Illinois General Assembly website Aug. 5, was chaired by Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, and was attended by the members of the Illinois House Higher Education Committee and the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee.

“It is important for students to understand their responsibilities when returning to college this fall for the safety of fellow classmates, staff and everyone else in the campus community,” Ford said in an Aug. 3 press release.

The hearing began with a presentation from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Board of Higher Education on their guidance for higher education institutions, both public and private.

At the hearing, IDPH spokesperson Aaron Beswick said they advise all colleges and universities to require vaccination of faculty, staff and students. For unvaccinated individuals on campus, Beswick said the IDPH recommends maintaining face masks and physical distancing indoors.

Columbia announced in an April 19 email that the college will require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, with vaccination “strongly encouraged” for faculty and staff, as reported by the Chronicle. The college will require regular testing for all unvaccinated members of the campus community.

Columbia is also requiring students, faculty and staff to wear masks at all times while on campus, regardless of vaccination status as of July 30, as outlined in an email to faculty, staff and students. The college shares its reopening updates publicly in a section of its website titled “Back Together, Columbia.”

Ginger Ostro, the executive director of the IBHE, echoed many of the recommendations from the IDPH, adding that Illinois institutions should provide information on the pandemic and should promote vaccine trust. According to Ostro, the IBHE updated its official Phase 5 guidance for higher education institutions July 19 based on new CDC guidance that encourages face masks regardless of vaccination status.

In the updated guidance, the IBHE also “strongly encouraged” the testing of unvaccinated individuals using the IDPH outline for testing in community settings and schools.

Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, challenged some of the guidelines outlined by the IDPH and IBHE, questioning the statistical justification for some of the updated guidelines. Beswick said the IDPH would follow-up with Mazzochi and the two higher education committees to provide data related to the vaccine.

After these presentations, representatives from Chicago State University, the University of Illinois System, Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, Governor State University, Southern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, Northeastern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University detailed their plans for a return to in-person classes. Many representatives said they will be requiring faculty and staff to be vaccinated before working on campus.

At Chicago State University, President Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott said the school would continue to upgrade campus ventilation and air quality systems. Scott also said CSU would require all residents and student athletes to be vaccinated—guidelines that many of the schools present said they would be implementing.

“After a year of hybrid education, our students are yearning for a return to more traditional in-person instruction in the fall,” said Avijit Ghosh, vice president and chief financial officer for the University of Illinois System.

Ghosh and other representatives said their universities received funding from the three federal stimulus bills to account for expenses related to testing and other costs, and they may need additional federal funding as campuses open up.