Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part interview series with Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman discussing the impacts NIU has sustained due to economic fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 1 featured details surrounding NIU's economic shortfalls brought on by the pandemic, and can be found here.
DeKALB – NIU president Lisa Freeman said one of the biggest things she's learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the ever-changing nature of plans.
So with the start of the fall semester barely two months away, the school has some ideas of what things may look like, but nothing official will be hammered out until mid-June.
"What I can tell you is we plan to have residents in the halls and plan to have face-to-face classes," Freeman said. "We will have less density of students in housing because we are going to give students single rooms. We know for sure there will be no large lectures. There will probably be a large percentage of classes that are taught in a hybrid or online format than in the past. But we certainly also expect to have students in small, face-to-face classes."
Freeman said she's part of a statewide group organized by the Illinois State Board of Higher Education that features administrators and faculty from across the state that is going to present guidelines to the Illinois Department of Public Health on June 4,
These guidelines, she said, will look at Restore Illinois from the standpoint of higher education.
The school is also looking internally at guidelines and would have recommendations and policies in place by the June 18 Board of Trustees meeting.
"I think those timelines are in good alignment," Freeman said. "We'll give students plenty of time to look at their core schedule and be excited about what's going on. Mid-to-late June is our deadline for communicating all those important pieces of information."
In addition to offering only single-occupant rooms in the residence halls, freshmen will not be required to live on campus, as has been the norm in the past.
Freeman said this will cause a hit in some of the revenue made from auxiliary operations.
"But when we make decisions, we prioritize the safety and well being of the NIU community," Freeman said. "We felt that safety and well being required us to reduce density. We also are being very cognizant of fact that the students who come in are going to have a different classroom and residential experience. We want to make sure we're well prepared to connect them and engage with them in effective ways."
Freeman said there hasn't been much communication with landlords around town with specific guidance, outside of part of a large conversation with businesses, the chamber of commerce, and DeKalb County UNITES, a business coalition, in terms of broad plans for the fall.
Some of these initiatives, Freeman said, include education campaigns on the importance of keeping the community safe, since there will likely still be physical distancing and other public health measures in place in the fall.
She said the business and government departments have been working with small businesses around town to help transition into the digital world. And there may be a way to incorporate the food scene of DeKalb into food and housing plans in the fall.
"We understand there's a great interdependence between the university and surrounding communities," Freeman said. "We all want to work together if possible to make sure we survive and come out of this stronger."
But everything, she said, is in wait-and-see mode in order to remain flexible.
"If the spring has taught us anything its that we need to be able to change on a dime," Freeman said. "We need to know going into the fall knowing whatever plans we announce in June and July, if the virus's behavior changes, we may need to change quickly without interfering, interrupting or jeopardizing our students' educational experience. We're very cognizant of that."
Freeman used the spring as an example, how the entire university had to pivot in about two weeks from in-person classes to online learning.
She said she was pleased with the transition but with more time to plan, she expects even greater things in the fall.
"We didn't have a lot of time to make sure our changes created the best possible state-of-the-art experiences," Freeman said. "I'm very proud of what our faculty and staff accomplished. The feedback from students was very appreciative of the effort. But going into the fall we do have more time to plan and be creative."
Freeman said there have been surveys of the high school class of 2020, and how this unexpected spring has made them reconsider things and consider taking a year off before starting a college career.
"While it may seem tempting to stop out with an idea that they can pick back up when things return to routine, my advice is don't do that," Freeman said. "Don't lose a year. Don't give up on the dream of a degree especially with an economic downturn having a degree really matters. Our university is going to do everything to help the students that come in this fall connect to their peers, connect with our faculty, and have an engaging experience. As engaging as they possibly can with the public health constraints that may possibly be in place."