Message to the Campus Regarding Summer and Fall Planning

covid-19

Monday, May 4, 2020 - 7:06pm

Dear Rice faculty and staff,

I find it hard to believe that this is the last week of the academic semester and the university has been substantially closed to all but essential personnel and about 250 undergraduate students now for six weeks. I want to thank all of you for delivering our classes for the remainder of the semester, keeping our campus safe and many of its functions operational, and protecting and serving those still here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc around our world, both in terms of health and financial consequences. As I write this, there are 3.6 million cases worldwide and over 250,000 attributed deaths. In the United States, there have been 1.2 million confirmed cases and nearly 70,000 deaths. As a country, we may have passed the “peak” of the daily growth of confirmed infections. In Texas and in Houston, the curve appears to have been greatly flattened and our community continues to be resilient in the face of this difficult challenge. Our federal, state and local governments have responded with a range of measures, and Rice continues to work with our government partners to ensure the safety of our Rice family and to support the city. We have welcomed to specified campus housing workers from the Texas Medical Center.

I know many of you are anxious to hear about the future and eager to return to campus, while still wanting assurance that you and your family will be safe. That is the primary purpose of this letter today, namely to convey what our plans are moving forward.

Let me say first that, as before, all of our decisions will continue to be guided by four priorities:

  • Protect the health, safety and wellbeing of every member of our community, and contribute to the local and national efforts to reduce the spread of this deadly virus.
  • Base our decisions on health guidance from an authoritative scientific source – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Continue carrying out our academic mission as best as possible given the circumstances.
  • Take actions that are consistent with our Rice values of responsibility, integrity, community and excellence.

We are cautiously optimistic that we will begin the fall semester on schedule in mid-August with all students who are able returning to campus. From now until then, depending on evolving facts and government rules, we will plan a gradual process of reopening. At each stage, however, we must be open to re-evaluating our plans as the facts and circumstances surrounding COVID-19 change.

We will begin a gradual ramping up of research activities, starting with significant limitations on personnel group size and strong social distancing standards, as early as May 15 depending on national, state and local conditions and guidance. The office of the Vice Provost for Research will manage that process, setting rules and requirements at each stage. Additional guidance will be provided soon. Around the same time, we will begin a gradual return of library services, starting with remote services for Rice faculty and students undertaking research that requires those resources.

Faculty may continue to go to their offices as long as they maintain strict social distancing. We will initially limit student presence on campus to those who have a concrete need to be there. Faculty, students and staff interacting in proximity are expected to wear masks when on campus. Of course, many risks come from outside our campus, and re-starting operations on the campus will only be successful if everybody also continues to maintain strong social distancing outside of the university.

All summer events and camps are, as previously announced by the Crisis Management Advisory Committee, cancelled through the end of July. All summer school classes will be offered online.

Only essential employees and those staff essential to the phased reintroduction of research on campus will be on campus for the remainder of May. Starting in early June after assessing the circumstances and the recommendations from health authorities, we will gradually bring back staff from across all campus functions, while continuing to encourage those who can to work from home. It will be the responsibility of the respective deans, VPs and directors, with guidance from Human Resources, to make the determination which employees should return and at what point in time.

Some students are expected to return in July, at a time to be determined, to prepare to welcome all of our students in the fall and to make any necessary changes to our matriculation ceremony and orientation week. We will consult with athletics about when student athletes with summer practice sessions may return.

As noted above, we are planning to reopen for the fall semester in mid-August with the full population on campus, with four significant modifications.

First, all classes, with very limited approved exceptions, will be delivered in dual mode, that is available both on campus and remote delivery simultaneously. The process of equipping the majority of our classrooms with this capability is underway. This will enable us to be both more resilient and more accommodating to both faculty and students. Because certain members of our community, such as those with underlying health conditions, are especially vulnerable, they may choose not to be in the on-campus classroom setting and will be accommodated. All sessions will be recorded solely for access by those in the class, particularly to enable those who are in substantially different time zones to reasonably access the classroom instruction. We will provide further information soon regarding preparation and training for faculty on dual mode delivery.

Second, because there is a risk of a second COVID-19 wave, we are taking steps to shorten the number of weeks during which classes will occur during the fall semester. Specifically, we will cancel the two-day fall recess (originally scheduled for October 12-13), enabling us to end classes before Thanksgiving. Some additional adjustments may be necessary. All requirements beyond that, such as exams and papers, must be capable of being completed remotely. While we expect to allow undergraduates to stay in the colleges for the usual duration (until mid-December), shortening our semester in this manner allows us to eliminate back-and-forth travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, and it lets us be better prepared, if necessary, to reduce our population and operations on the campus earlier. Housing will be provided over the winter break for international and other students if they are unable to return to their homes. Details on this academic planning will be forthcoming within the next couple weeks.

Third, we will be adopting additional safety and social distancing measures across our campus community. These measures are in the process of being worked out, but they will include protocols for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and precautionary isolation of individuals that may have been exposed to the virus. We are securing the necessary arrangements and facilities to assure we can undertake these measures. Large gatherings will continue to be prohibited on campus, but the exact nature of such regulation will depend on the circumstances that exist at the start of fall semester, and we will be planning and preparing as appropriate. Classes may be scheduled in a somewhat different way in order to accommodate additional social distancing measures.

Fourth, in light of international travel difficulties, including the ability to secure visas in a timely manner, we will need additional flexibility, especially for international students. We will be more open than in the past to allowing new students to start mid-year or defer their enrolment. We expect a number of international students may have to delay their start until January, and we will have orientation opportunities, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, for those students at that time.

The policies regarding employment will remain in force for the month of May, namely that no full-time employees will be furloughed or discharged solely by reason of the COVID-19 crisis or because we are unable at this time to bring them back to the campus to work. We do face significant financial challenges ahead due to the decline in endowment value and other factors. As previously communicated, there will generally be no pay increases for next year except for promotions, and a hiring freeze with limited exceptions is in place. Over the next months we will be exploring other measures to reduce our expenditures and increase revenues to adjust to a budgetary environment with reduced revenue from our traditional sources.

With all that has happened to our community since early March, it will be exciting for us to return to campus. I know that so many of you are eager to be physically part of our community again and undertake your work in the most effective way possible. It is our missions of teaching, research and service that motivate us. But we must undertake this process of reopening with care so as to assure the health and safety of all members of our community.

More detail on all these elements will be forthcoming over the next couple of weeks. For now, let me again thank each of you for your contributions in these difficult circumstances. Together, we will move forward with strength, and build an even better university with the new capabilities and greater resilience we have developed during these most challenging times.

With warm regards and gratitude,

David