Grinnell College to close campus and shift to online learning amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Grinnell College was the first Iowa college to close due to growing concerns of the international outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus. Students are expected to leave campus by March 23, and make the shift to online learning to complete their courses in an effort to keep the Grinnell community safe.

The World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom is classifying the coronavirus as a “pandemic” given its wide reach across the globe. The U.S. State Department has issued a “Global Level 3 Health Advisory,” calling on citizens “to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19.”

With 17 presumptive positive cases in Iowa, COVID-19 has officially reached the Hawkeye State. While there have been no reported cases in Grinnell, college administrators do not want to take any chances with the health and safety of those on campus or the town as a whole.

Grinnell President Raynard Kington said in a memo from March 10, “Our goals are first and foremost to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe including those most vulnerable in this situation; to support course completion and graduation; and to not overburden students who are in financial need.”

Classes will continue, as scheduled, through Friday, March 13. The policies being implemented will go into effect through March 15, the end of the spring semester. The college will make the shift to distance learning (online classes and labs) by March 30, minimize the number of students in residence and restrict college-sponsored travel. All athletic events, large gatherings and events with off-campus groups or individuals seeking to use Grinnell facilities are canceled.

Starting March 16, the College will be instituting “policies and practices of social distancing” with a goal to “decrease the number of instances that require community members to gather in large groups or spend extended periods of time in close proximity to each other.”

The administration offices and libraries will remain open, and students with exceptional reasons to remain on campus can petition the school to do so. To keep students updated on the situation, Grinnell has set up a “CORONAVIRUS COVID-19” website and will make more information available in the upcoming days.

When Grinnell made the announcement on Facebook, the reactions in the comments section were mixed. Some criticized the actions being taken as being too drastic, while others praised the administration for making a tough choice to help ensure the general welfare of the community.

The Grinnell student-run newspaper, The Scarlet & Black, has been off-line since February. In lieu of a website, the newspaper staff has set up a blog, The Scarlet & Black Live, to report live updates and news regarding the college’s COVID-19 response.

To help provide insight into the situation and the concerns involved, Grinnell College hosted two town hall meetings at Herrick Chapel on March 11. The first session was recorded, after some initial audio issues, and can be accessed online.

One of the speakers was biology professor David Campbell, who holds a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease. After taking the podium, Campbell said, “If you think a cruise ship is a Petri dish, picture the college as an incubator,” noting the risk of the disease spreading at the Grinnell campus and town of Grinnell would quickly overwhelm local health resources.

“Understand this,” Campbell continued, “these are ethical provisions and sacrifices. They are a moral choice. And speaking personally, as one of those people in a high-risk category by virtue of my age, I thank you.”

The risks of serious illness and fatality from COVID-19 are higher for older adults and those with pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Students will be refunded for room and board, but not tuition. Packing materials and dumpsters for students moving off campus will be provided by the college. Students are advised to take library books and course materials with them wherever they travel, and details on how to return them will be announced at a later date.

Dean of the College Anne Harris said, “We’re definitely not going to do a traditional commencement,” as alternative discussions continue as to whether there will be a postponed commencement or an online ceremony.

Among several other concerns raised during the town hall sessions is the status of student employees at Grinnell, such as dining hall workers and their safety. “Salary continuance will be provided for faculty and staff,” Harris said, with details still pending.

Grinnell College Student Government Association (SGA) President Regina Logan (class of ’20) said during the meeting, “This is a time to be our best selves in a situation that is absolutely not our fault. I’m not willing to put our most vulnerable neighbors at risk. We are one of the luckiest groups in our situation. Slowing the spread of the virus is going to help.”

Following Grinnell’s lead and those of other academic institutions across the state, and at the urging of the Iowa Board of Regents, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and Executive Vice President and Provost Montse Fuentes released the statement Wednesday:

Following the identification of COVID-19 cases in Johnson County, the University of Iowa is suspending face-to-face instruction for two weeks following spring break. The university will move to virtual instruction beginning March 23, 2020, and continue online courses through at least April 3, 2020.

Little Village reached out to the Grinnell and UI administrations for further comment, but they did not respond to this request in time for publication.