Students Back On Campus At Idaho Universities Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic

Sep 14, 2020

University of Idaho senior Annika Esau was almost certain she wouldn’t be headed back to campus this fall.


“I kept looking at the statistics and watching the numbers crawl up and being like, surely it won't keep ... like surely they'll cancel soon," said Esau.

But the University of Idaho didn’t call off the fall semester. In August, Esau moved back to Moscow, Idaho, alongside thousands of returning co-eds. 

Dean of Students and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Blaine Eckles said after trying out virtual learning in the spring, returning to in-person teaching was key to students' success this fall.

“A lot of our students, we know, struggled in the spring semester when we had to shift and pivot to the online learning environment and that really was a telling factor in our decision making," said Eckles.

This semester, despite being back in-person, looks very different. Masks are mandated on campus, capacity limits are set for classrooms and some residence halls, and students have to have a negative test before going into a classroom. 

Dean Eckles also said safe socializing is key. 

"We're not saying students shouldn't socialize, we're just saying do so in a responsible way," said Eckles. "So we want students to connect and engage because we know that's an incredibly important part of the college experience.”

But he also said the university would be open to suspending or expelling students who violate distancing policy. 

Senior Dawson Hill said he is supportive of how the university is reopening. 

"They've invested tons of resources into making sure that we're safe and healthy," said Hill. "They just want to make sure that we still have as much of the college experience as we can.”

Dr. Christine Hahn is the state epidemiologist. She said that college experience now, with shared living spaces and close relationships, is challenging. 

“It's just human nature that it's harder to keep your guard up, keep your distance, keep your mask on when you feel like you're with family or with people that you're seeing all the time," said Dr. Hahn.

Across the nation, schools like University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and University of Alabama have seen large outbreaks as they tried to bring students back on campus. 

“They opened up and immediately students had parties and people went out," said Dr. Hahn.

She said it’s important to learn from these mistakes. 

But some, like doctoral student Clinton Elg, said the university still isn’t doing enough. 

“The university has passed up on the number one most important public health measure they could implement, which would be to cancel classes and allow more physical distancing," said Elg.

Elg recently wrote an open letter saying the university disregarded faculty concerns about safety.

Nearly 300 faculty members signed a petition voicing concerns about in-person teaching safety and asking the university to “honor all requests to teach remotely.” 

Currently, faculty have to return to in-person teaching unless they submit a request to be approved, or denied, by the dean of their college. 

“They do not want to take that risk and that's been utterly ignored," said Elg.

Dean Eckles says that is not the case.

“They may not have been agreed with, but definitely not ignored," said Eckles.

Despite the conflicts, Dean Eckles is optimistic. He said with students, staff and faculty working together, the campus will remain open. 

Senior Annika Esau isn’t as sure. 

“I'm kind of half hoping, half dreading that school will be canceled eventually," said Esau. "I expect that it will. And I kind of want that to happen, but I kind of don't.”

And in that way, she’s like so many navigating these pandemic times — hoping to go back to normal and afraid of the consequences of going back to normal too soon. 

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

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