Morton Schapiro.

This is how the President of Northwestern University began his comments on a noontime webinar: “I am Morton Schapiro. I’m the president. If you’re angry, blame me.”

Schapiro told students, parents, and faculty watching the webinar that he was sorry for how a major announcement about the fall quarter was handled.

Late Friday afternoon, NU said that all first and second year students (with a handful of exceptions) would have to take every class remotely, could not live in dorms nor even be on campus, and are being discouraged from coming to town.

Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, Vice President of Student Affairs put it this way: “you shouldn’t plan to be in Evanston.” Fraternities and sororities will also be closed for the first quarter.

The reason is COVID-19. Northwestern had planned to open with reduced residence hall capacity, COVID testing, social distancing and hygiene requirements, and most but not all classes via e-learning. Until the middle of last week, Schapiro said he was “absolutely convinced we could pull this off,” despite other schools like the University of North Carolina sending everyone home following a coronavirus outbreak.

But when the state of Illinois put suburban Cook County on warning on Friday morning due to increasing COVID cases, Schapiro said he felt the need to make changes “at the last minute.” Residence hall move-in was supposed to begin this Sunday.

“In retrospect,” he said, “I should have decided earlier.”

Schapiro explained that due to social distancing and efforts to prevent the spread of COVID, the university had planned to fill only 3,000 residence hall and Greek beds, about 60 per cent of capacity. But with COVID expected to increase, Northwestern was going to cut that to 1,000 beds, with 609 others reserved for quarantine and isolation.

Schapiro said planners realized they needed “many, many more” than 609. “It was not close,” Schapiro said. He said it made more sense to impose new restrictions now than to open for a week and then have to “pull the plug,” closing the entire campus and sending everybody home.

First or second year students who planned to live in a dorm will be allowed to get out of their housing contracts. They can also defer enrollment until the winter or spring quarter, or even until fall 2021. However, it was stressed that anyone considering delayed enrollment should check with an adviser, as some programs require a sequence of courses. Missing one could put the student behind.

Juniors, seniors, and graduate students can still come to campus. Residence halls are available for those students, although most live in the community, not in dorms. Safety and hygiene measures will still be in effect in university buildings. There will also be COVID testing. Move in has been moved back to Sept. 12 and 13 for those still eligible for dorms. Classes begin Sept. 16.

The university promises disciplinary action against any student who violates COVID safety guidelines, ranging from warnings for not wearing masks, to possible expulsion for hosting large parties where the virus easily spreads.

NU still does not know how many of its 8,300 undergraduate students and 13,600 graduate and professional students will remain enrolled for the fall.

Schapiro said he was “cautiously optimistic” about bringing first and second year students back to campus for winter quarter in January. However, he also pointed out he was more than cautiously optimistic as recently as last week for this quarter, and that hardly worked out. “I just don’t know” what will happen for the winter, he said.

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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