By Elyssa Cherney Chicago Tribune

Colleges and universities across the state are betting on a more complete return to in-person learning this fall, but it’s not clear if those plans will come to fruition at this stage of the pandemic.

The University of Illinois System — with campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield — announced Tuesday that it anticipates the majority of classes and labs to be held face to face next school year.

Noting exceptions for larger lecture-based courses, which will continue to be offered online, system President Tim Killeen pointed to increased COVID-19 testing and rising vaccine supply as key factors that support the decision.

Students on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus in December.
Students on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus in December. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

“Barring a marked change in the pandemic’s current trajectory, we intend to welcome students back to a more traditional, more personal campus experience next fall,” Killeen said in a statement.

Though schools are eager to share their plans, especially as the admissions deadline looms for prospective students, many variables could throw expectations into flux.

It’s still not known when all college students and faculty will receive the vaccine, though President Joe Biden has pledged that every resident will be eligible by May 1. And other critical questions, such as whether new coronavirus strains will derail progress and what state health officials will allow, could also complicate projections.

Acknowledging the uncertainties, U. of I.’s flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign will move forward with its goal of bringing the maximum number of students back. Fall instruction begins Aug. 23 and dorm move-in is tentatively scheduled as a staged return over eight days, according to spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

“We are still in the planning stages, and our planning approach will include options to modify our plan if safety conditions warrant,” Kaler said Tuesday. “Our goal in planning for fall 2021 is to provide our students with something as close as possible to the in-person experience they expect of a residential campus.”

Dorms can be filled to 100% capacity, though some single rooms will be set aside to keep buildings’ density down or for quarantine and isolation spaces, Kaler said.

At a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month, university leaders said fall plans will hinge on public health guidelines, including what’s permissible under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois reopening plan, and widespread vaccine availability.

Chancellor Robert Jones said fall planning can’t be delayed any longer because students must register for classes in the coming weeks and that he hopes to have “additional clarity” about when undergraduate students can expect to be vaccinated by mid April.

“It’s still a waiting game,” Jones said at the March 8 meeting. “We still don’t know, but we had to make some planning assumptions.”

Illinois is currently under phase four of Pritzker’s plan, which allows gatherings of 50 people or fewer and for colleges to resume in-person classes in accordance with state health department guidance. All capacity caps would be lifted once the state or individual regions move into phase five, but it’s not clear when that will happen or if additional precautions will be introduced.

A quiet University of Illinois-Chicago campus on Oct. 6, 2020.
A quiet University of Illinois-Chicago campus on Oct. 6, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Andreas Cangellaris, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost at U. of I., said faculty should anticipate classrooms will be filled to 50% capacity, or capped at 200 people.

“We are not expecting to have the very large classrooms that have more than 400 students in person in the fall, not in this stage of planning at least,” Cangellaris said. “So, 50% capacity with an upper limit of 200 individuals will allow a large percentage of our class to be offered in person.”

Some online classes will continue to be provided, particularly for international students who can’t return to campus, Cangellaris said. Other precautions such as mask wearing, contact tracing and frequent COVID-19 testing will continue in the fall, Cangellaris said.

The majority of higher education employees won’t be eligible for the vaccine until phase 1C, which hasn’t begun yet. Some U. of I. employees already received the shots due to a communication error, while the bulk of in-person instructors statewide continue to wait.

Students without underlying health conditions who do not otherwise qualify will be some of the last residents to get the vaccine.

Some of the other colleges prepping for more in-person learning this fall include Loyola University Chicago, Southern Illinois University and Bradley University.

Loyola announced its plans March 9, with school leaders signaling optimism for a full return to in-person classes and residence hall occupancy. The decision was based on “the best available data and intelligence,” including a successful surveillance testing program, dropping transmission rates and increased vaccinations.

“Given the progress made on vaccinations and significantly lower infection rates during the past several weeks, we expect that these positive trends will continue,” Provost and Chief Academic Officer Norberto Grzywacz said in a message to faculty. “Therefore, we anticipate that normal operations, including in-person instruction, will fully resume.”

Grzywacz noted that Chicago and Illinois might impose restrictions on the plan and that faculty can decline the vaccine.

SIU shared its vision March 4 in a blog post by Chancellor Austin Lane titled “Our hope for an in-person fall 2021,” which he said will continue to include safety protocols.

“At SIU Carbondale, we are doing better than many other places, as evidenced by our low number of positive cases,” Lane wrote. “If trends continue in the right direction, fall 2021 could more look like fall 2019 than fall 2020.”

In Peoria, Bradley University also detailed aspirations to be “fully back on campus in the fall,” according to a news release last month. About 60% of classes were offered in person this spring and fewer than one-third of students took part in remote learning, according to the release.

“We plan to return to in-person learning as our primary delivery method,” university President Stephen Standifird said in the release. “With the lessons learned during the past year and success in our mitigation efforts, we are confident we will have a successful spring and will continue to be resilient and sustainable as we move toward fall 2021.”

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