Northwestern is no longer your father’s university. Nor your mother’s. “We have to reimagine everything about the University,” said Luke Figora, chief compliance and risk officer at the Evanston school. “Everything we do has to be looked at with a new lens.”

Figora’s comments came today during the first of a series of webinars that Northwestern is presenting about reopening the campus this fall.

One big takeaway: the school is actively planning a combination of in-person and remote classes, with remote the majority. The other big takeaway: Northwestern has to be prepared to change on a dime, if the coronavirus pandemic gets worse. Saying health and safety are the top priority, “We’re completely prepared to go all remote,” said Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty.

Northwestern did go to all remote learning after the state of Illinois issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March. The spring quarter was entirely classes via computer. Hagerty said professors thought remote learning was “going to be a disaster.” And students, she said, had low expectations as well.

But, she explained, it turned out better than anyone thought. And it’s been fine-tuned since then, even if nobody wants it. “Both faculty and students really want to come back,” Hagerty said.

But coming back, if it happens as now planned, will be very different than what used to be. Due to social distancing requirements, Hagerty said, Northwestern has lost 70 per cent of its classroom space. “We have to re-think every single class and how it will be run,” she said.

And it’s not just classes. “Social distancing will make everything feel different on campus,” said Kelly Schaefer, assistant vice-president of student engagement. First of all, she said, it’s unclear how many of Northwestern’s 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students will come back at all. Families have been hit hard by COVID related layoffs and business closings, so some students might not be able to afford to return.

Those who do return will find mostly single rooms in the dorms instead of doubles, with first and second year students now allowed to live off campus. Food service will be more “grab and go” rather than sit-down dining. And student actions, to help avoid the spread of COVID, “is a really big issue,” Schaefer said.

NU will enlist leaders of various student organizations to “model desired behavior,” like wearing masks and not attending large gatherings such as parties. “It’s a public health crisis,” Schaefer said. “We know people have to follow certain behaviors.”

If Northwestern Fall 2020 will be a new world for students, the same is true for faculty and staff. Many of the 400 questions that viewers sent to the webinar dealt with child and elder care, and personal and family exposure to the virus for employees.

Employees with children are in a true state of confusion, as the reopening of K-12 education is up in the air, depending on where you live. Evanston Township High School has announced a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning. Evanston-Skokie District 65 and Chicago Public Schools have not announced yet what they’re doing. So it’s impossible for many parents to plan.

Northwestern officials said their policy is to help as much as possible. “Be flexible. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” said Priya Harjani, NU’s deputy general counsel. Northwestern has several options for faculty and staff who have child care or coronavirus exposure concerns, from trying to work out a schedule change to a “COVID temporary leave policy.”

Then there’s the question of a quarantine. Chicago requires anyone coming in from a coronavirus hot spot to self-isolate for 14 days. Evanston does not have such a policy, although Northwestern officials have not ruled out some sort of self-isolation for students, depending on the coronavirus situation. If instituted, it would be announced before the Sept. 6 move-in date. Classes begin Sept. 16.

Just about the only certainty right now is uncertainty. The plan is to return to campus for at least some in-person classes, but the virus will ultimately dictate what happens. Said Interim Provost Hagerty, “We’ve been surprised so many times. Every day is a surprise.”

Northwestern will hold more webinars, focusing more specifically on housing, academics, and health and safety. They are expected to be Thursdays at noon.  For more information, including how to send in questions, to go the university’s website.

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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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