Message from President Leebron and Provost DesRoches

Message from President Leebron and Provost DesRoches

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 12:31 pm

Dear Rice Faculty and Staff,

We write to follow up on the July 17 general communication to the campus regarding plans for the fall semester. This note sets forth our plans to begin the semester four weeks from now, and is a bit long because it covers a number of topics. These include information on some of the processes that have informed the university’s decisions and the current state of our plans. Between now and the beginning of the semester, we will continue to review these plans in light of information on the trajectory of the pandemic both locally and nationally. We are grateful to all the faculty, staff and students who have worked tirelessly to prepare for the fall.

We include information we have gleaned from student and faculty surveys. Overall, we expect less than 40% of our undergraduate students to be housed on campus and about three-fourths of our student contact hours to be taught remotely. Many graduate students are taking courses primarily online, and those doing research on campus are keeping lower population density

We also want to give you more details on the health screening, testing, quarantining, contact tracing, cleaning, mask requirements and other protocols we have adopted, as well as additional requirements for all members of our community on campus. We provide more information on research plans, as well as a status report on our international students.

Much of the planning and preparation for the return was guided by the Academic Restart Committee (ARC). The ARC is chaired by Faculty Senate Speaker Christopher Johns-Krull and includes faculty from every school and a representative group of staff. We are indebted to the members of the ARC for their expert and enthusiastic leadership. We also have consulted with an external advisory committee with experts from the Texas Medical Center, as well as an internal committee of faculty with relevant expertise.

As stated in previous communications (see ALERTS at the Rice COVID-19 website), our strategy is to be “flexible, agile and adaptable.” The recent spike in Houston illustrates how quickly the situation can change and, while the latest trends are showing an improvement in Houston, our strategy allows us to quickly adapt to the environment on campus and in Houston and is designed to be responsive to individual circumstances.

The four fundamental principles that have guided our decision-making help ensure a system of measures designed to make our campus community as safe as possible from COVID-19, while enabling us to continue fulfilling our mission as a premier institution of higher education and research. Keeping our community safe and healthy will require each one of us to act responsibly for the protection of ourselves and others in accordance with our culture of care. Detailed requirements are being incorporated into agreements for each part of our community.

To provide an opportunity for faculty and staff to ask questions, we will be holding an online town hall for faculty and staff on Monday, Aug. 3 at 4 p.m. We will both be there to answer questions, along with the dean of undergraduates, the dean of graduate and post-doctoral studies, the vice provosts for research and academic affairs, the vice president for administration, and the vice president for international operations and IT.

After you have read this communication, submit your questions for the town hall in advance to https://www.rice.edu/covidsurvey. We’ll also welcome questions submitted during the meeting, and we’ll prepare an additional FAQ from the questions we receive for posting on the web.

Protecting the Campus Community

Rice University has developed a layered approach to make campus safer during the fall semester. The strategy includes many types of preventative measures working in tandem to reduce viral transmission. We realize that we cannot control the presence of the virus in areas surrounding our campus and thus the major route of viral entry is likely to be from individuals going back and forth from the Houston community and onto campus. Over the last four months we have had a cumulative total of 59 cases in the Rice community, only one of which may have resulted from a person-to-person transmission on the Rice campus.

A viral suppression strategy relies on a series of barriers that when combined can markedly reduce the chance of transmission from an infected individual. No one barrier is perfect and therefore it is a combination that works most effectively. The measures we are taking include the following:

Reducing Campus Occupancy and Density:

Reducing campus density is an effective measure to reducing viral transmission. That includes reducing the number of undergraduate students in residence on campus, reducing the density of graduate students on campus and especially in research labs, supporting online education by both students and faculty who choose it, reducing class sizes, limiting gathering sizes, reducing visitors and promoting work from home for staff.

  • Residential Students: All undergraduate students have completed a survey of their enrollment and residence intentions. Altogether, it shows that less than 40% of undergraduate students will live on campus, and approximately 58% of the total on-campus undergraduate beds will be filled. In addition, 21% of undergraduates will not come to campus this fall and will study in a completely remote format, and another 2% are taking a gap year or leave of absence. Although the numbers could still change, we expect in total about 4,000 undergraduate degree seeking students will enroll this fall, as will approximately 3,400 graduate students.
  • Since our last communication, class sizes have been reduced to a maximum of 25 for in-person instruction. While 59% of classes will be delivered in-person, that actually equates to only 25% in-person student enrollments (measured in credit/class hours).
  • Research groups are encouraged to work in shifts and continue to reduce the number of individuals present throughout the workday. Under Research Stage 2 Guidance, use of graduate student offices remains limited while we open up experimental laboratory spaces. Experimental laboratory spaces typically have more than 10 air changes per hour and are therefore less likely to accumulate aerosol borne virus. As with the rest of campus, personal protective equipment (PPE), disinfection and physical distancing is absolutely required while on or in campus facilities.
  • A large fraction of the university staff will continue to work from home or have reduced on-campus hours. We estimate that less than half of our campus staff will be on campus at any one time through the fall semester. Those offices that have campus interaction (e.g., Registrar, Cashier, classroom support) will be taking appropriate safety measures.

Taken together, we estimate that our daily campus population this fall semester will be reduced by half or more, and with it the chances for viral transmission.

Health Screening

Each individual member of our community will be required to monitor their personal health daily by checking their temperature and their ability to detect scents and assessing their overall wellness. They will record that information into an electronic app, which will aggregate data for all members of our community so that we can better assess the health of the Rice population. Every member of our community who comes to campus – faculty, staff and students – will be required to electronically attest that, on that day, they have taken the required precautions for our community health screening program. For staff, we have also added sick days to make sure that individuals do not feel pressured to come to work if they are not feeling well.

Testing

In recent weeks, we have substantially increased planned testing for COVID-19. All undergraduate students will be tested upon arrival and throughout the semester. Tailored testing protocols, based on risk of transmission, are being developed for graduate students, faculty and staff, and will also continue throughout the semester. We have contracted for 60,000 tests during the fall semester and have access to more if it becomes necessary.

Each member of our on-campus community is part of a testing program. The Faculty Testing Advisory Committee has been helping design a risk-based approach to testing based largely on the number of direct contacts an individual will likely have with others when on campus on any given day.

  • Phase I (Undergraduate Campus Move-in). Each undergraduate student has been asked to get a SARS CoV2 test prior to departing for Rice. Upon arrival each student will be given a rapid antigen test. They must test negative in order to move in to their college or access the campus. These tests have 30-minute turnaround times. Any student who tests positive will be given the more accurate PCR test and asked to self-isolate until those results are returned within 24 to 36 hours. All undergraduates on campus this fall will be automatically enrolled into the high-frequency testing cohort.
  • Phase II (Faculty, Staff and Graduate Student Fall Semester Survey Testing). We are using the SARS CoV2 PCR Assay for our campus testing throughout the semester. The SARS CoV2 PCR Assay is the most accurate and sensitive assay available. Not everyone on our campus will be tested with equal frequency. Those who live on campus will be tested most frequently, followed by persons who have high contact with others when on campus, such as faculty and graduate students who teach an in-person class and front desk staff. Members of our community who do not come to campus will not be tested. The Faculty Testing Advisory Committee is currently working to finalize this testing strategy, and more details will be communicated prior to the start of classes.

Anyone testing positive will immediately be handled on a medical basis to establish quarantine and to provide resources and support. In addition to medical support, aggressive contact tracing will be initiated.

Our layered approach to reducing viral transmission requires collecting a lot of information and using it to act smartly and quickly. We are partnering with Google to provide the integration of health screening data and testing for campus analytics. Everbridge will be providing the automated contact tracing tools to complement our manual contact tracing teams. Beginning in August we will post these and other statistics daily on a dashboard located on the Rice COVID-19 website to provide our community with a shared understanding of the environment.

PPE, Physical Distancing and Hygiene

While on campus, all members of our community will be required to wear appropriate PPE in the form of masks, maintain a high state of personal hygiene by hand washing, and by disinfecting work and other touch surfaces to reduce transmission. Physical distancing of 6 feet is required on campus where possible. For undergraduate students, Dean Gorman’s team has developed a Culture of Care Agreement that all enrolled students must read and sign. It details our expectations for student behavior both on and off campus. A corresponding agreement for graduate students prepared by Dean Matsuda’s office will be released next week. A communication to faculty and staff regarding brief training and a pledge was sent to faculty and staff last week.

Campus Infrastructure

Campus buildings are being modified in the following ways: increasing outside air ventilation by reprogramming systems designed to vary air flow for energy conservation; enhancing air filtration through the use of higher efficiency filters; incorporating ultraviolet-C lights into heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to kill or inactivate microorganisms; and, cleaning of HVAC air handling systems.

Update on International Students

We are proud that Rice’s student body is nearly 25 percent international, since attracting the best faculty and students from around the globe is an essential attribute of any preeminent research university. We are therefore working hard to make sure that efforts by the Academic Restart Committee (ARC) are aligned, as much as possible, with efforts to allow our existing and new international students to pursue their degrees. There remain challenges on this front. Rice recently was one of the universities that submitted an amicus brief in support of the Harvard-MIT case to block a directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that would have required international students to leave the country if their courses were all online. ICE rescinded that directive in response to the suit, which had positive implications for our existing international students. They then issued guidance that suggested new students would not be able to enter the country if instruction was to be available online. Currently, there are about 500 new international students currently outside the U.S. who would be affected by these measures, and about 80% of them are graduate students. Continuing Rice international students will remain unaffected.

Conclusion:

From the outset of the pandemic crisis we have emphasized the challenges posed by both the uncertainty and the dynamic nature of the situation. We have chosen to accommodate as much individual choice as possible, while assuring the safety of our community and our ability to fulfil our mission. We have recognized that some students need or strongly desire the campus environment, while others prefer to remain largely remote, whether here in Houston or elsewhere. We have sought to protect the ability of our international students to pursue their studies in an increasingly confusing environment. We have allowed faculty to choose the mode for delivery of instruction that best fits their personal situation. In this process, we have consulted with experts both internally and externally. We have adopted a strong and scientifically based set of measures, as outlined above. Our success, in both safety and fulfilment of our mission, will depend on both rigorous adherence to the measures adopted and commitment by everyone to help Rice operate at the level of excellence we expect.

No set of decisions in these circumstances will be without risks, and even a decision to completely shut down the campus would pose risks—to the wellbeing of our students and to the university’s ability to sustain our community and carry out each of our missions. In the weeks that remain before the beginning of the semester we will continue to assess the situation to ensure that we can protect the health and safety of all the members of our community as well as possible. We will adapt our plans as necessary.

Again, we are grateful for the dedication and unity of our community, and look forward to hearing your questions and concerns both in writing and at the town hall.

With deep appreciation,

David W. Leebron Reginald DesRoches
President Provost