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Coronavirus Weekly Update, September 1: Testing, housing and contract cancellation, employee flexibility

President Larry Dietz announced in a message to students, faculty, and staff that weekly coronavirus updates will begin this week. “The updates will provide context to the University’s approach to coronavirus and how positive test results might impact our operations moving forward,” said Dietz. “University leadership is closely monitoring positive test results received from on-campus and community testing and is in regular discussions with local government and health officials.”

“Over the last several months, faculty and staff have put in an incredible effort to teach and care for our students,” said Dietz. “I will remember these days with great gratitude for the tireless hours our faculty and staff have put in to continue to serve our students.”

Testing
“Illinois State University is working with the University of Illinois to become a partner in their saliva-based test,” said John Baur, professor of chemistry and COVID-19 testing coordinator. Baur is leading Illinois State’s testing efforts. According to Baur, in order to implement the saliva-based testing on the Illinois State campus, there are a number of steps that must be completed. “The first step was achieved when the University of Illinois received FDA approval in recent weeks. A second major step is building a CLIA-certified lab, which will be in the Science Laboratory Building,” said Baur, who added the goal is ultimately to test students, faculty, and staff at least once per week. “A unique aspect of the partnership with the University of Illinois Shield Illinois program is the ability to extend testing opportunities to other educational institutions, local nursing homes, and major employers in the area,” said Baur. The cost of setting up the lab is estimated at $1 million and will take at least 10 weeks.

Along with symptomatic testing at Student Health Services, asymptomatic testing for students is available at two on-campus testing sites that are currently located in the Brown Ballroom in the Bone Student Center and the former fire station at 602 N. Adelaide St., from 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The most up-to-date information about testing locations is available on the Student Health Services website. Unfortunately, testing capacity does not allow for testing of faculty and staff at this time.

Illinois public universities record and report their COVID data differently, and at this point, Illinois State is doing more widespread testing than any state university in Illinois with the exception of the University of Illinois. “As our surveillance testing ramps up, we expect that expanded testing will result in a lower positivity rate,” said Baur, adding that University leadership is monitoring the situation closely.

Housing and Contract Cancellation
Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson noted there are no plans at this time to close the residence halls. “Right now, more than 80 percent of those testing positive are living off campus and of those students living in on-campus housing, only 2 percent are currently in on-campus isolation.” he said. “The residence halls have implemented a variety of measures to further support the health and wellness of our on-campus residents.”

There are no overnight or off-campus guests allowed in the residence halls, high-touch areas are cleaned frequently, face covering procedures are monitored, there are no triple or quad occupancy rooms, residential fitness centers are closed, common space is set up for physical distancing, and staff are on-hand to serve as a resource to students and monitor compliance. Students found in violation of quarantine and isolation procedures are subject to the student code of conduct and ultimately at risk for housing contract cancellation.

In addition, de-densification efforts resulted in nearly a 40 percent reduction in on-campus housing occupancy for the fall 2020 term. At this time, there are fewer than 4,000 students living in on-campus housing, which is a reduction of over 2,300 students compared to Fall 2019. In an effort to provide the most flexibility possible for students and their families, housing and meal plan contracts may be cancelled at any time during the fall term without financial penalty. Students must visit the Housing and Dining portal to cancel their housing and meal plan contracts.

“We know that flexibility is key,” said Johnson. “Living in the time of COVID-19 means students’ lives can change in an instant, and we want to support them and will continue to be as flexible as possible.”

Employee flexibility
Dietz reiterated the University’s commitment to remaining flexible. “I encourage as many faculty and staff as possible to work remotely if their position allows,” said Dietz. Temporary work from home agreements should be submitted to Human Resources and at this time and can be extended through December 31, 2020.

Provost Aondover Tarhule shared that faculty members continue to have a choice in their teaching modality. At this time, more than 80 percent of classes have moved online. In the spirit of added flexibility and to support the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff, Tarhule said, “Any instructor, in consultation with their chair, director, and dean, may transition to online instruction.” This approach is in place for the remainder of the semester and applies to all instructors. Decisions about the spring semester have not yet been made. “We will look to science and continue to discuss options each day.”

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