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Iowa's state colleges combating COVID-19
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Iowa's state colleges combating COVID-19

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Carrie Denton has two children in college in Iowa. One is living at home for her final semester at the University of Northern Iowa; the other is on campus at Grandview University in Des Moines.

So Denton is well aware of COVID-19 and how it has been spreading across Iowa colleges since students have returned to campus in recent weeks.

Denton’s daughter, Riley, is living at home in Raymond while finishing the last semester of her senior year at the University of Northern Iowa, about an 18-mile drive away. She had been living in Cedar Falls until May, when her lease ended.

Riley’s move was more about not signing another year-long lease than it was about COVID-19, but Denton said the family has had “several conversations” about the disease and the possibility that she could expose her family to it.

Riley works at grocery store and “sees the public quite a bit,” her mother said. “She also has friends and other people that she’s out seeing. … That was a risk that we had to take allowing her to come back into the house.”

Still, Denton said her daughter “has always been pretty responsible about making sure her circle is pretty tight and not taking too many risks.”

Denton’s son at Grandview just tested positive for COVID-19, but is asymptomatic, she said.

“He’s not coming home,” she said.

Colleges across Iowa are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic — especially the state’s three public universities, which have the largest student populations. New cases have been spiking in Iowa — making it one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus’ spread — and that increase is being driven by infections in young Iowans ages 19 to 24: college students, in other words.

So serious was the spike in cases that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered the closure of bars and night clubs in six Iowa counties, including those host to the regents universities — the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa State University in Ames, and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. It was the first significant mitigation strategy employed by Reynolds since she started re-opening the state’s businesses after the first major statewide quarantine in March and April at the beginning of the pandemic.

From requiring face masks to keeping students a safe distance apart inside classrooms and other campus buildings, the regents schools have each implemented myriad strategies in an attempt to allow students on campus while also keeping students and staff safe and healthy, and the virus’ spread under control.

“We are pleased that students are wearing face coverings in the classroom, and are seeking testing when they feel they may have symptoms. We have established a University Response Team, and smaller teams in our colleges and units, to work through concerns as they arise,” Iowa State spokeswoman Angela Hunt said in an email exchange. “Our plans for the fall were never set in stone; we’re making adjustments as circumstances warrant, and we’ll continue to do so until the pandemic ends.”


At the University of Northern Iowa, face coverings are required in all campus buildings. That includes areas such as elevators, restrooms and hallways. There are a number of notable exceptions like dorm rooms and private offices or while eating, which are posted in relevant campus spaces.

Face coverings are also required in outdoor settings when 6 feet or more of social distancing can’t be maintained. Cloth masks are preferred, but UNI is making face shields available for those with medical conditions or other unique situations when a mask is not possible. Complimentary face coverings are available at the UNI Bookstore by showing a university identification card.

Students and staff are asked to complete a daily health check of temperature and COVID-19 symptoms that can be completed through the online Panther Health Survey. Those who have symptoms or believe they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to stay home and call UNI’s student health clinic for a phone assessment. They are also asked to notify their residence hall office if they live on campus.

Students are directed by the health clinic as needed for testing and contact tracing. Those who come to the clinic for testing are kept separate from students there for other purposes. Contact tracers work with students who test positive to track down others who may have been exposed.

Students are asked to quarantine away from others for 14 days when they might have been exposed to someone with the disease. Students are asked to self-isolate for a 10-day period from when symptoms appeared if they are diagnosed with COVID-19. Those who are asked to do either submit an online notification form so their professors know about the reason for the absence.

In both cases, students can do this in their house, dorm room or apartment. If they have been diagnosed with the disease, UNI advises them to stay in a separate “sick room” and use a separate bathroom if available.

UNI announced last week that its fall semester commencement, usually held in December, will be moved up to Nov. 28 and be a virtual event. That follows an earlier-than-usual ending to the semester before Thanksgiving. With the football season postponed, UNI also announced homecoming will be moved to the spring, although some virtual events are still planned for this fall. 

Many off-campus educational opportunities are continuing as planned aside from study abroad, which has been postponed through January. Students are to observe the protocols and procedures of the organizations and schools the university is partnering with as they participate in these activities.

As of Friday, the student clinic had reported 105 positive cases out of 405 tests administered since Aug. 17, the first day of classes. That included 35 positive tests for the past week, according to information posted at the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard. As of Thursday, UNI’s department of residence listed 91 students in quarantine and 32 students in isolation.


The University of Iowa requires face coverings during in-person classes and, unless posted otherwise, in all university buildings, according to the school’s COVID-19 website. Anyone alone in a private office or their residence hall room, does not need to wear a face covering.

Face coverings are also recommended outside if social distancing cannot be maintained, the website states.

The campus community also has been advised to practice other standards of coronavirus safety, including maintaining 6 feet of social distancing whenever possible and washing hands for at least 20 seconds, the website states.

Students who test positive or who are notified by county health officials that they have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus have a way to notify the university online, according to the website. Students who had a positive test are supposed to self-isolate and assist with contact tracing and informing people with whom they may have had close contact.

If contact tracing identifies them as at risk, students are supposed to quarantine and watch for symptoms that indicate they may have COVID-19.

In either case, if they live in campus residence halls, the university has housing set aside for quarantine and isolation.

If they don’t live on campus, these students are advised to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for isolation and quarantine.

Students are expected to abide by the COVID-19 safety guidelines off campus as well as on campus, said Sarah Hansen, vice president for student life. Doing things like gathering in groups considered too large, not wearing face coverings in recommended conditions can lead to penalties such as restriction of activities, disciplinary probation or suspension.

Reynolds’ order to close bars in the area has assisted the university, she said.

“That’s a pretty important factor for us,” Hansen said.

The university has an online tracker that lists its number of self-reported cases. As of Friday afternoon, there had been 1,395 confirmed cases among students so far for the semester, 97 residential students with COVID-19 isolating on campus, and 15 residential students quarantined after potential exposure.

The University of Iowa has a total enrollment of roughly 30,000 students, and roughly 5,100 live on campus, according Hansen.


At Iowa State University, cloth face coverings are required indoors in all university buildings. They are also required outdoors when people are in the presence of others.

The school is addressing campus density by offering online and hybrid classes. Roughly half as many students are coming to campus for class, Hunt said.

Iowa State also has reduced classroom capacity to 50% or less to allow for more space between students, and is providing remote work options for staff when possible.

Dining areas have reduced and adjusted seating capacity and implemented traffic flow measures to create social distancing, and have expanded takeout options and locations.

Campus buildings and offices also have implemented traffic flow measures and limited room capacities.

Any Iowa State student, faculty or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days, per recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students living in residence halls have the option to move to an isolation room or complete their quarantine at home. Students living off-campus or in on-campus apartments must isolate in place.

The school also requires any on- or off-campus gathering of students to comply with all public health orders in place — from local to federal — and students must wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.

Iowa State’s Thielen Student Health Center provides testing for students, faculty and staff who display COVID-19 symptoms or were potentially exposed to a positive case. The school plans to open a second testing site next week at Hilton Coliseum.

Hunt said Iowa State officials feel their strategies have been effective because the school has seen a “small number” of COVID cases among faculty and staff. She also praised Reynolds’ order to close bars in those six counties and the City of Ames’ passage of a face covering mandate.

Iowa county and city governments can pass face mask mandates, but cannot include enforcement mechanisms because of an order by Reynolds.

“We believe these actions should flatten the curve of infection when combined with the vigilant practice of the Cyclones Care behaviors both on- and off-campus, at restaurants, while shopping, and in social situations,” Hunt said.

According to Iowa State's online tracker, since Aug. 1, 839 students have tested positive — 655 confirmed through on campus testing and 184 self-reported, as have 10 faculty members. In the last week, 502 of those student cases were confirmed.


Iowa’s Lee Newspapers want to hear about the experiences --- positive or negative --- students are having on college campuses this fall. If you are a college student or a parent with a child attending college in Iowa and have a relevant experience to share, please contact your local Lee newspaper.

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