Northwestern University is “monitoring daily” other universities that are backing away from in-person classes.

In a webinar this morning, University Vice-President for Research Milan Mrkisch said NU “will make adjustments to plans and policies as necessary.”

Classes resume at Northwestern on Sept. 16. Most courses will be taught remotely, but some will have an in-person component. Earlier this week, the University of North Carolina sent students home due to a coronavirus outbreak, and shifted to entirely e-learning. Notre Dame temporarily paused in-person courses for the same reason. And Michigan State is cancelling in-person classes before school has even started, shifting to remote learning.

Mrkisch said Notre Dame and Michigan State are not the same as Northwestern, so what’s happening there does not necessarily mean NU will cancel in-person courses. He said that some other schools that are teaching in person are “doing well,” but Northwestern will continue to monitor the COVID situation. “Every university is impacted by local circumstances,” he added. While positive COVID-19 cases in Evanston are low compared to other places, numbers in Illinois have been increasing in recent weeks.

Today’s webinar dealt primarily with how research will be handled in the fall, assuming NU reopens in person. Northwestern has more graduate students (13,000) than undergrads (8,000), so research is a huge component of what the university does.

NU has reopened laboratory buildings, with health and hygiene measures such as social distancing and requiring masks. The number of people allowed in is limited. Even the library is by appointment only.

Much of the research now deals with COVID-19. Administrators on the webinar said Northwestern has been involved in more than 250 COVID-related clinical trials, with more than 10,000 patients enrolled. Associate Vice-President for Research Rich D’Aquila said “we pivoted, collaborated, and jumped into the challenge.”

D’Aqila noted that trials for a coronavirus vaccine will begin at NU in a couple of weeks, part of a nationwide 30,0000-person trial involving the Astra Zenica pharmaceutical company.

Since laboratory buildings were re-opened on June 1, officials said there has been just one confirmed Evanston COVID case among the NU community who used those labs, and three at University program sites in Chicago. There was no campus transmission beyond the infected individuals, because, Milan said, social distancing, masks and hand washing were commonplace. “I’m really proud of how our community has risen to the challenge,” he said.

Northwestern’s policy for those who might feel forced into the lab against their wishes was outlined. Students have the right to do their work remotely, and there is a complaint process if they believe that right is being violated. Kelly Mayo, interim dean of the Graduate School, said there have been “not a huge number, but a significant number” of such complaints, ranging from unknown people in a building without masks, to “my advisor is pushing me to be in the lab.” Most of those complaints, officials said, turned out to be communication issues, and were resolved.

While Northwestern is still moving ahead to re-open Sept. 16, Luke Figora, University Risk and Compliance Officer, said “we’re very cognizant of what’s going on out there. We don’t have our heads in the sand.”

Figora said monitoring is day to day. “We hope to have in-person classes in the fall,” he said. “But we won’t do it if we’re not confident doing it.”

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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