Illinois resident James, 18, made his decision on which college to attend in March, back near the outset of the pandemic in the U.S.
The northwest suburban Chicago teenager chose Miami University in Oxford, Ohio — a school that has now pushed back in-person class until Sept. 21 because of the pandemic.
Since Aug. 17, James has been taking online classes from home, all while watching some of his best friends — new University of Iowa attendees — meet people and party with no restrictions in Iowa City.
So, James decided to join in.
“I went up [to Iowa City] on Wednesday and came back Friday. Since we don’t have class for a while, I thought I’d go visit my friends,” said James, who preferred his last name not be used so as to not run afoul of his college, in an interview with Starting Line.
The University of Iowa has become a beacon for quintessential college life during a time when universities nationwide look drastically different — from quiet campuses with postponed semesters to others offering increased online coursework to some that are mandating two-week quarantines for all returning students.
Before Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a public health proclamation ordering all bars in Johnson County to close on Thursday, lines of students — many without wearing masks properly or at all — stretched past popular spots like The Summit, Bo James and The Airliner.
Inside Brothers in Iowa City two days before classes start. ISU just enacted new social gathering guidance threatening suspension. pic.twitter.com/pUmuRq1nrs
— Vanessa Miller (@VanessaMiller12) August 23, 2020
On Friday in a campus update, the University of Iowa reported 500 additional self-reported student cases of COVID-19, which brought the campus’ total to 607 over the past two weeks. The New York Times ranks the Iowa City metro as the third-worst in the country for per capita new cases.
“I was thinking that it’s kind of odd that you can be so casual there,” James said. “I could have been there for months and I kid you not, nobody would have known I was there. I was shocked. I [said to my friend], ‘Are you sure I can come?'”
“I thought I’d at least have to pull some trickery to get in, but I didn’t have to do anything. I wasn’t slick either, I didn’t have a duffel bag. I brought like a mini roller bag and nobody said anything. And I didn’t see any administration.”
University officials said they would consider “additional actions” if the local COVID-19 rate doesn’t flatten next week, but some students have already called upon administration to move classes completely online. Currently, 76% of undergraduate credit hours are virtual.
University President Bruce Harreld has maintained a position of “personal responsibility” to combat COVID-19 on campus — by urging students to wash their hands, wear face coverings and social distance. The stance has been met with concern over its leniency.
The UI freshman who James visited requested to remain anonymous, but said he moved into Catlett Residence Hall just over a week ago. Like many others hailing from Illinois, the student has enjoyed his newfound freedom away home, in a place subject to looser COVID-19 guidelines.
“Honestly, people aren’t scared. There’s a few, but most people, if they could, they’d still go out,” the student said. “It’s definitely more people that like their freedom and want to party instead of quarantining.”
Approximately 5,594 of the UI’s students come from Illinois, according to a 2019 profile of all UI students. The UI freshman who hosted James said that the vast majority of people on his floor are Illinois residents, most of which have been socializing together in dorm rooms and frequented the bars before they closed last Thursday.
Around eight or nine people on the floor have tested positive for COVID-19, he said.
There have been other people who have friends coming from out of town to the dorms as well, the UI student said, including a family friend whose high school-aged sister came to visit her brother, another UI attendee from the Chicago area.
James said he expected some pushback from the University regarding his stay on campus. He thought the trip would be like the experience of one his friends whose school is also postponed, and has been visiting Illinois State University on the weekends. But the friend needs to borrow keys or sneak into on-campus living in order to stay.
“I was shocked at Iowa. My friends called the people that handle parking at the University to ask about overnight parking for a visitor, and a woman gave them all of the information I would need,” James said. “They didn’t ask where I was coming from or anything. I just parked, walked in, and not even a comment.”
But what surprised James most was the lack of testing on campus.
“He was mostly amazed that we don’t have to test here, and all the other schools are testing two, three times a week,” said the UI student, who noted that friends from home at schools like the University of Illinois are back on campus too, though testing is required.
“You don’t have to test here. I would like to test, like at least twice a week. A couple kids who live near us, they couldn’t get one here, it was all filled up,” he said. “So they drove all the way to Des Moines to get a test. They called student health, but couldn’t anything until much later in the week.”
James said that Miami University administration emailed him on Friday with news that every student will be required to get a COVID-19 test each week in Oxford, with online correspondence for testing sign-up.
“You’re required to be tested, even if you’re asymptomatic. And they’re going to have a screening for asymptomatic people,” James said.
He also said Miami University has been good about corresponding with students and parents about protocol once they’re back. On Friday, the school made students aware of what back-to-school processes would look like, which is a stark difference from how UI students says their university communicates with its community.
“We haven’t had to test here once. Unless you have symptoms or something,” said the UI student. “They’re communicating to us a little, but way more than they are with our parents. I think it’s the parents who are more nervous because they’re not really getting anything.”
by Isabella Murray
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.