Local residents learn about UChicago’s return to campus plan during virtual community update

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Before the first undergraduate students started moving into campus residence halls over the weekend, University of Chicago leaders shared plans for resumption of education and other in-person programs with members of the broader South Side community during a virtual community update event.

The Community Update on the Return to Campus Plan on Thursday, September 17 featured representatives from seven different University units addressing reopening topics of interest to the community and answering questions submitted by community members. Topics covered included COVID-19 mitigation efforts and expectations, quarantine protocols, off-campus student support and oversight, University monitoring metrics, and community programs changes and opportunities, among others.

“The University’s goal in returning to campus is to sustain our approach to education, research, and intellectual life at the University while at the same time prioritizing the health of the members of our shared community,” said Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs. “We place great value and importance on in-person engagement to building intellectual and social communities but we recognize in this age safety and proper protocols are of the upmost importance.”

Public Health Guidelines and Precautions

Provost Lee offered a general overview of what safety protocols will look like as students, faculty, and staff return to the area. Members of the campus community, for instance, are required to take COVID-19 training and sign an online attestation form to acknowledge and attest that they will comply with the University’s COVID-19 health requirements. Precautions include maintaining social distance, wearing face coverings, and complying with social gathering restrictions. The accompanying UChicago Health Pact and Because We’re All in This Together campaign will remind and encourage members of the campus community to adhere to those precautions through signage around campus, social media, and other messaging.

“While we are returning to campus, we are not returning to life as usual,” Lee said.

Lee told attendees more than 70 percent of undergraduate and graduate students have indicated they intend to return to campus in some form this fall; many have remained in the area during the past six months since the pandemic took hold.

All students living on campus will have a period of limited activity out of their rooms upon their arrival to campus, with a required quarantine of 14 days for students coming from states that are on the city of Chicago’s travel restriction list. Everyone living in University housing or taking part in varsity athletics will be required to have weekly testing thereafter. Additionally, the University is launching a Voluntary Surveillance Testing Program for thousands of other members of the campus community, including off-campus students. Dr. Emily Landon, Executive Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at UChicago Medicine, said the testing programs are part of a robust suite of precautions the University community will be taking to protect its members and neighbors on the South Side. The University additionally has isolation housing and a new dedicated, in-house contract tracing program in place to track and follow up on positive test results or potential exposure.

“When we layer these interventions together, they create the kind of safety blanket that we need to protect our communities and our students,” Landon said.

Off-Campus Oversight

Several community members submitted questions about how precautions would extend to students living off campus. Michele Rasmussen, Dean of Students in the University, said while students will still be encouraged to have fun and explore the city and South Side safely in small groups, students found to be not adhering to proper safety protocols on or off campus will face consequences. Community members who wish to report unsafe or troubling behavior can contact the University using the UCAIR platform on the University’s UChicago Forward site.

Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff in the President’s Office Katie Callow-Wright and Assistant Vice President for Risk Management and Resilience Planning Courtney Davis Curtis explained how the University will track metrics such as testing totals and positive cases, and directed people to find information on its UChicago Forward site.

Contingency Planning

Callow-Wright addressed a common question about how the University will make decisions as pandemic trends inevitably change in the months ahead – is there a magic number of cases or other factors that would result in a major shift in approach?

“There is not one metric that is the trigger that would cause us to make a major change in course,” Callow-Wright said. “For example, if we were to use test positivity rate as the key metric in our decision making, we wouldn’t be accounting for other factors like the spread of the virus around us in the city or the region or high reports of noncompliance by our students, either of which might warrant some adjustment in our plans. So, while there are some data points that are particularly important for us to watch on a daily basis and to discuss, it’s the full picture that will inform our decision making as we move forward.”

Community-Facing Programs

Douglas and Director of Community Arts Emily Hooper Lansana talked through the ways the University has pivoted its community programming in the past several months to meet the needs of South Side residents, many of whom were hit particularly hard by the pandemic and other recent challenges. The University launched its Community Support Initiative in late March, for instance, to help address the urgent food security needs of South Side residents and provided emergency and later, ongoing, support for small businesses and community-based nonprofits navigating a landscape shaped by the ongoing pandemic and growing economic challenges. Other programs such as the University’s Community Programs Accelerator, Neighborhood Schools Program, and Arts + Public Life have meanwhile pivoted to virtual platforms to ensure they can continue to serve the community safely, Douglas said.

While a lot will look different this year, Hooper Lansana pointed out that new virtual programming such as the Spinning Home Movies series and Virtual Visits to the Arts have allowed for more community engagement in some ways.

“While we often talk about what we are losing during this time of having to shift our lives for COVID, I think the Arts in many ways are also giving us an opportunity to reflect on things that we’re gaining in terms of the opportunity to have expanded audiences have access to programs and the opportunity to have some of these programs available for an extended period of time,” she said. “So, if you missed something if you visit the website of one of the institutions you may have the opportunity to catch up and dig into some of the wonderful Arts that are happening.”

Community Updates and More Information

For community programs updates, Douglas encouraged attendees to subscribe to the Office of Civic Engagement’s email newsletter and check out the University’s UChicago Forward site for information related to campus safety protocols and other similar topics. The full Community Update event video is available here and below.

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