From Tight Hallways To Packed Elevators, Urban Campuses Grapple With Social Distancing The allure of downtown Chicago often draws students to schools with urban campuses. During the pandemic, operating from the densest part of the city comes with extra risk.
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NPR logo From Tight Hallways To Packed Elevators, Urban Campuses Grapple With Social Distancing

From Tight Hallways To Packed Elevators, Urban Campuses Grapple With Social Distancing

Colleges with campuses in downtown Chicago are sorting out ways to keep students safe from COVID-19 in buildings where social distancing is difficult. Marc Monaghan/WBEZ hide caption

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Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

Colleges and universities in downtown Chicago often use their urban location as a selling point when attracting students. Now, those campuses — located in the densest part of the city — are turning into a potential liability as schools plan to reopen this fall after the COVID-19 shutdown.

Tight stairwells, elevators, small classrooms and limited entrances and exits are now all problems to be solved while students and staff are supposed to stay 6 feet apart.

For many downtown schools, the solutions start with far fewer students. Many campuses, including National Louis University, Roosevelt University and City Colleges of Chicago, have said the vast majority of fall classes will still be held online because they can't operate at full capacity while social distancing.

But all the schools will offer limited in-person offerings, mostly for hands-on classes or to give students access to technology or study spaces they can't get at home — and that's where the schools are trying to get creative.

Take the stairs

National Louis wants people to take the stairs if they are able to instead of congregating in the lobby to wait for an elevator, which can only carry two people at a time, according to Aurelio Valente, vice president of student affairs. NLU's campus straddles buildings of six to seven floors each across from the Art Institute of Chicago. They're also designating up and down stairwells to help maintain social distancing.

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Columbia College Chicago, located in the South Loop, said on its website it's allowing four students per elevator, but each must stand in a corner and wear a face mask. They are also designating up and down stairwells and adjusting occupancy limits for all rooms. Its plan also includes new rules for the campus library. Librarians will retrieve materials for students, and all materials will be isolated for 72 hours upon return.

Public transit exposure

Valente said a huge concern for NLU is the number of students and staff who take public transit to campus. Plus, students often grab lunch at nearby restaurants since NLU doesn't have a dining hall. Security staff will require people who enter the building to immediately wash their hands to reduce community spread, since the risk of contracting the virus is higher on public transportation than if people are driving themselves.

At Roosevelt University, all students and staff will have temperature checks before entering facilities. Elevator and stairwell capacity will also be reduced. Face-to-face instruction will mainly be limited to labs, studio classes and clinics. First-year students can elect to take two to three in-person classes.

Universities with multiple campuses

Loyola University Chicago is creating similar policies for its campus near Water Tower Place. They are increasing time between classes and considering using freight elevators to move students and staff through the building faster. The university will add four shuttles between its downtown and Rogers Park campuses since fewer students can be on an individual shuttle at one time.

They're also repurposing smaller classrooms that are essentially unusable into study spaces or places students can eat since the dining facilities won't be able to accommodate as many students.

"Coming to Chicago is one of the things that's appealing to many of our students who come from all over the Midwest and the country and the world," said Kana Henning, associate vice president of facilities at Loyola. "It really all comes down to attempts to de-densify the campus as much as possible while still providing an experience for our students."

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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