Northwestern University has a message for sophomores. Don’t come to Evanston. And there’s also a second message … if you did come, go home.

Those rather blunt comments were front and center in a webinar aimed at second year students Tuesday afternoon. University officials are concerned that efforts to reduce COVID-19 on campus could increase the spread of the disease in the surrounding community — something NU is hoping to avoid.

Miriam Sherin, provost for undergraduate education, said that outside of a small number with approved exemptions to live on campus “second year students should not plan to be in Evanston this fall.” The same is true for first year students.

Late last month, NU told those 4,000 first and second year students they would have to take all classes remotely. And no living in the dorms, due to increasing concerns over COVID-19.

Luke Figora, the university’s risk and compliance officer, said, “Simply putting more students off campus versus on campus” is not the goal. “We really need the campus and the Evanston community density to be lower in order to create a safe environment,” he added.

But there is a dilemma. Shut out of the dorms, many students rented apartments in Evanston. Armed with their laptops, they could take classes a mile from campus, rather than on it, and still be in a college town. NU officials are worried that at least some of those off-campus students will party without masks, without social distancing, and with lots of people in small rooms — a sure way to spread the virus. It’s happened at other colleges.

“We’ve heard from a number of you,” Sherin said, “that you plan to stay in Evanston in the fall quarter. We just ask that you reconsider,” she said, “and if you are able to, please stay home.”

Even though classes start Sept. 16, NU does still not know how many students will be taking remote courses in Evanston or in their home towns. There will be some on-campus classes for juniors, seniors, and graduate students, but most of their classes will be remote as well.

Northwestern does hold a disciplinary hammer over students who might misbehave, even if they live off campus. Jeremy Schenk, executive director of the Norrris University Center, explained that by signing up for classes, NU students also agree to a COVID-19 code of conduct. Those rules include limiting social gatherings, and those who break the rules could be in trouble.

The webinar was not all gloom and doom. Provost Kathleen Hagerty said, “The faculty are preparing to offer rich and engaging remote classes this fall.”

But will landlords really let students out of apartment leases to take remote classes from back home? Chances there seem … remote.

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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