Despite COVID-19 case numbers spiking across Illinois, and despite the state moving backwards into more restrictions on businesses, Northwestern University has repeated its plan to bring all students back to campus when Winter quarter begins in mid-January.

In an email to faculty and staff, Luke Figora, the school’s senior associate vice-president and chief risk and compliance officer, says there may be questions about that return “when the conditions of the pandemic are deteriorating today.”

But Figora says Northwestern’s experience this fall suggests there can be a healthy environment “if we all work together and follow the precautions we’ve designed to protect campus.” Student/staff/faculty COVID positivity rates have hovered in the 1% range, far lower than in both Evanston and in Suburban Cook County.

While most classes will still be held remotely next term, NU plans to allow first and second year students back into the dorms. “It is clear the campus will feel different,” he says, “but our students want to be back on campus and have demonstrated that they are willing to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and the community.”

The University has said that any students who plan to leave for Thanksgiving should get a COVID exit test. Students will also be tested again when they return in January. Classes end this Tuesday, and all exams will be given remotely.

NU is asking faculty members to work from home through the end of December if possible. Asymptomatic COVID testing will be available for faculty and staff who do have to work onsite during this period.

Graduate students who leave Evanston for Thanksgiving are being told not to return to campus until two weeks after they come back to town. Grad students who need access to labs or other research facilities are allowed on campus one week after receiving a negative COVID test.

While plans are underway for a campus return in January, there is a big “what if” still out there … namely, “what if” the COVID conditions keep getting worse and worse? Figora says “we will closely monitor developments daily over the next 45 days.” Stay tuned.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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