Frequently Asked Questions for 2020-21

Answering frequently asked questions on Brown’s actions to protect the health of the community amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic.

These questions are being updated as new information becomes available from government and health agencies that affect Brown and members of our community. Please also visit the University Updates page to review campus communications about changes in programming and operations. And for the most up-to-date information on the status of campus activities, consult the policies currently in effect on the Campus Activity Status page.

University Operations

For the 2020-21 academic year, Brown established a three-semester academic calendar and other policies and practices that have reduced the density of students, faculty and staff on campus.

Undergraduate students will be on campus for two of the three terms, providing an environment with fewer students on campus at any one time. Employees who are able to continue working remotely will continue to do so for the months ahead.

On Oct. 29, 2020, Brown confirmed its Spring 2021 plan to allow a larger number of undergraduates, including first-years, to return to campus for an in-person residential experience, while students who choose to study remotely will be able to continue to do so. Likewise, graduate students will continue to have the option to enroll in coursework in a remote or hybrid format, and deans in the medical school will communicate directly with medical students about schedules and operations on an ongoing basis. Faculty will continue to have the option to teach, mentor and advise in-person or remotely, and staff who can work remotely should continue to do so. Any employee who will work on campus must do so in alignment with an approved Return to Campus Plan.

The University has implemented a robust set of public health practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus and safeguard the health of students, employees and community members. Part of this includes an extensive education, training and prevention campaign to support community adoption of public health practices and protocols. Testing and contact tracing for all Brown employees and students is playing an essential role in campus safety.

All elements of Brown’s planning are based on the best expert advice for safeguarding the health of our community and maintaining Brown’s high standards of teaching and learning.

At all times, Brown’s operations are based on the best current available data and public health recommendations. The University has established Campus Activity Status levels to provide members of the Brown community with a guide for complying with current health protocols and required prevention measures while engaged in study, work and living at Brown.

All members of the community have been advised about the need for flexibility, given the great uncertainty about how the pandemic continues to evolve across regions of the country and the world, and the pace at which treatments and vaccines will be developed and made available. Students, faculty and staff have been informed that the University may need to make mid-course changes or adjustments to workplace safety and how instruction is offered, research is conducted, and public health protocols are implemented on campus. At varying times of the academic year, healthy conditions have warranted a shift to online-only instruction and reduced on-campus operations.

As always, the University will approach any changes based on community principles that place a premium on the health and well-being of all who work, study and live at Brown.

Central to Brown’s mission is teaching and research, and the University undertook several months of exploration and planning to determine how to continue to conduct these activities in healthy and safe manner for the 2020-21 academic year. Brown University bases all decisions regarding public health on the best available science and at all times follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Rhode Island Department of Public Health (RIDOH). Factoring into the July decision was the downward trend of cases of COVID-19 in Rhode Island at the time, and the state’s move into Phase 3 of its reopening plan.

In order to ensure that thoughtful and comprehensive study and planning took place to develop a plan for academic and administrative operations for 2020-21, President Christina H. Paxson formed and charged four COVID-19 planning groups in April 2020:

Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force: Charged with developing an effective public health plan for Brown University that will, if conditions permit, make it possible for the University to re-open its campus in Fall 2020 with the confidence that the health of its students and employees will be protected.

Academic Continuity Group: Charged with developing plans for reopening research laboratories and libraries, and implementing changes in the academic calendar, curriculum and modes of teaching that will enable Brown to continue to provide a high-quality academic experience for all students.

Personnel Group: Charged with developing plans to safely bring employees back to campus and making decisions about a range of issues affecting support for Brown staff during the pandemic.

Finance and Strategy Group: Charged with assessing the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and developing strategies to maintain Brown’s short-term and long-term financial stability.

The work of these groups led to the development of Brown’s Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21. It represents the work of the faculty, students and staff on these groups and many others, all committed to ensuring that Brown operates in a healthy and safe manner throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

Since the Fall 2020 semester, a Covid-19 Campus Activity Level Review Team reviews data on the prevalence of COVID-19 cases and other factors to make a recommendation to Brown's president and her senior team regarding permissible levels of activity on campus — including whether to sustain in-person instruction — in alignment with public health guidance.

The University’s plans, policies and guidance to Brown community members may adapt and be updated as guidance from health agencies evolves with our understanding of COVID-19.

Continuing undergraduate students completing their second semester or greater — sophomores, juniors and seniors — were enrolled in Fall 2020, as well as transfer students and those in the Resumed Undergraduate Education program. New first-year students will be enrolled for the spring term and continue to the summer term. During the fall, new first-year students were able to take one Brown course remotely for credit, free of charge, and were also able to participate in remote orientation, mentoring and enrichment opportunities.

Under the three-semester model, graduate students (doctoral and master’s) are enrolled primarily in the fall and spring terms, although significant numbers of new international students needed to defer arrival due to expected delays in visa processing.

All undergraduate and graduate students have been given the option to enroll in their courses remotely, whether they are on campus or not, and all faculty have been given the option of teaching in-person or remotely.

Medical education is substantively different from undergraduate and graduate programs in many respects, including the fact that third- and fourth-year instruction takes place almost entirely in Brown’s affiliated hospitals and is subject to the plans and policies of those institutions. The Warren Alpert Medical School (AMS) has adopted its own guiding principles for delivering the medical curriculum in the current academic year.

For the Spring 2021 term, approximately 7,650 Brown students are living on campus or in the Providence area with the ability to access in-person learning and on-campus services when Campus Activity Status allows. That includes approximately 5,575 undergraduates, 1,500 graduate students and 590 medical students.

With the University continuing to enable students to choose their Location of Study, nearly 1,700 other undergraduate and graduate students are studying remotely during the spring. These students live outside the Providence area with no ability to access campus, campus facilities or in-person resources.

Of Brown’s employees, approximately 2,900 faculty and staff are authorized to have some presence on campus as part of an approved Return to Campus plan. Roughly 900 of those employees are working on site daily, with the remainder authorized only for more limited access to campus. With the University continuing to ask employees who can work from home to do so, more than 1,700 staff and faculty are working fully remotely.

Many faculty members at Brown already used digital teaching and learning tools in their instruction prior to the pandemic. The University advised faculty beginning in early March 2020 to prepare for the possibility of delivering course content remotely, to ensure continuity of teaching Brown students should the need arise. Staff in Digital Learning & Design and Computing and Information Services supported faculty efforts directly and helped to develop courses for remote instruction.

The Prevention section of this website, aligned with Brown’s Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21, outlines the public health steps that have been implemented to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on campus. These steps include extending the expectation that all employees able to telecommute will continue to do so until further notice. It also includes changes in modes of instruction, with most courses being delivered online, and only courses or sections with 19 or fewer students taking place in person.

Brown is following a three-term academic calendar (fall, spring and summer) in which undergraduate students are on campus for only two of the three terms. This makes it possible for all undergraduates living in residence halls in the fall and spring to have single rooms, and to “de-densify” classrooms, libraries and other spaces on campus. 

There have been modifications for undergraduate student life in terms of dining and extracurricular activities. For all employees and students, the implementation of strict protocols for personal health, distancing, cleaning and regular testing have been essential for safeguarding the well-being of our community.

All members of our community are required to wear masks and practice social distancing when they are in public places. Large group gatherings continue to be limited — with restrictions meeting and at time exceeding state guidelines limiting such gatherings — and activities that require travel to other locations continues to be restricted.

Events take place largely online, or shaped by reduced capacity of spaces, social distancing, hand washing, masks and other health protocols. And high-touch surfaces are cleaned and disinfected routinely by Facilities Management and the individuals using those surfaces.

All who study, work and live at Brown are required to commit in writing to follow required public health practices and accompanying campus policies, and to acknowledge that disregarding public health practices is a violation that could result in disciplinary action. Each and every member of our community must translate Brown’s culture of caring into scrupulous attention to public health.

All students who are living in the City of Providence are required to complete the Student Commitment to COVID-19 Community Health and Safety Requirements. All employees who work at a Brown location or work remotely are required to undergo training that ends with affirming their understanding of workplace safety protocols via Workday.

In addition, together with students, faculty and staff, the University has launched the Brown Takes Care public health campaign. It is as an inclusive and iterative effort that directly engages members of the Brown community as storytellers and influencers to promote the health practices that are essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To maintain a healthy and safe community during the pandemic, Brown has focused on identifying and preventing further community spread of the virus at the earliest possible stages. Routine testing — which tests individuals regardless of symptoms to monitor for the virus’s spread — remains essential for the health of the campus population.

This is providing a better understanding of the initial incidence of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in the population and how it changes over the year, as well as identifying the proportion of asymptomatic positives and the proportion with potential immunity to the disease over time.

Testing is mandatory for all students, faculty and staff who are on campus regularly. All community members subject to mandatory testing receive an initial baseline test at the point at which they come to campus (at the start of a semester, or in resuming on-campus work, for example). After the baseline test, individuals are tested either once or twice per week, depending on the amount of regular contact they have with other students, faculty and staff (more information on the employee and student testing pages).

Even with the extensive public health protocols and mitigation efforts Brown is putting in place, it is impossible to ensure that no one in the campus community will become ill with the coronavirus. The University’s response for prevention and minimizing virus spread is based on the knowledge and acknowledgement that any college, university or community will see diagnosed cases of COVID-19 until the point that a vaccine is widely available, just as is the case in the general population.

A COVID-19 dashboard keeps our community informed of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and prevalence on campus. When someone in the Brown campus community tests positive, the University has trained contact tracers who work with the Rhode Island Department of Health to locate community members who may have been exposed to COVID-19. The University has set aside special dormitory space for isolation (for students who contract the virus) and quarantine (for students who have been exposed).

If a cluster of individuals who are COVID-19 positive occurs on the Brown campus, we are prepared to take immediate, appropriate action in coordination with RIDOH. The University would immediately isolate and quarantine affected individuals, close and clean involved facilities, and take any other corrective measures guided by RIDOH and the CDC.

Given that all of Brown’s courses are available online, students in isolation or quarantine are able to continue with their academic work, making it easier for students to be out of contact with others. The routine testing program on campus supports the identification of incidences of COVID-19 across our community — including faculty and staff — allowing immediate action to reduce the chances of community spread.

At various points in any academic year, University offices communicate with cohorts of students based on their residential status: whether they live in Brown residence halls, off-campus apartments or elsewhere.

For the 2020-21 academic year — a year in which Brown has leased additional housing facilities in the local area to enable single-occupancy University housing assignments exclusively —  enrolled students are required before each semester to provide information to the University clearly indicating their Location of Study. Here is how Brown has defined each of the five options for undergraduates:

  1. On-campus: undergraduates in Brown-owned or Brown-leased housing facilities who received a housing assignment from the Office of Residential Life. This includes not only students in residence halls on the University’s physical campus, but also those living at nearby properties leased by Brown during the 2020-21 academic year including the Omni hotel, River House, 230 Thayer St., 257 Thayer St., Chestnut Commons and 95 Lofts.
  2. Off-campus in the Providence area: Brown seniors or others with permission from the Office of Residential Life who live in local apartments and private residences, as well as those who signed private leases with Brown Auxiliary Housing.
  3. Commuter: students living with family at a permanent address within 30 miles of Providence.
  4. Remote: students outside of the Providence area with no ability to access campus, campus facilities or in-person resources (which are violations of the Code of Student Conduct for remote students, since they are not enrolled in Brown’s routine COVID-19 testing program).
  5. RISD housing: Brown-RISD dual degree students who live in Rhode Island School of Design housing.

Graduate students are generally off-campus in the Providence area or remote.

Regardless of Location of study, any student can choose to take some or all of their courses remotely.

The three-term academic calendar reduces density, allowing for single-occupancy of rooms, and limiting and assigning the number of students using common restroom facilities.

Based on epidemiological models developed for our expected campus residence hall population each semester, Brown has prepared over 200 quarantine/isolation rooms for students. However, the University expects that the numbers needed are likely to be far less for most of each term. Students who live in private off-campus apartments will be able to isolate in their apartments.

Brown remains open, with only personnel classified in various categories of “essential” reporting to work in person since March 16, 2020. To the extent possible, faculty and staff who can work from home — in full or in part as determined by their supervisor — continue to do so. All work location designations are assigned by supervisors in alignment with approved Return to Campus plans.

While these work arrangements remain in effect, all employees will continue to be paid and do not need to apply to University Human Resources for Alternative Work Arrangements to telecommute. Brown continues to support the safety of its employees, as well as to address their needs to care for others affected by the coronavirus. University policies are subject to change and may be modified as more information on the coronavirus becomes available.

Brown has established a COVID-19 Campus Safety Policy intended to manage all work that is authorized to take place on campus in a safe and orderly manner. This policy applies to all faculty, staff and students, and all members of the community are expected to become familiar and comply with it at all times. No member of the community will be able to return to campus, or continue to be on campus in the case of personnel already performing on-site essential work, until they have completed and signed an employee acknowledgement.

Additional details, including enhancements to workplace policies to address the impact of COVID-19 (such as paid special leave measures) are available on the Workforce page.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of Commencement 2020, the University hoped that by Spring 2021, the public health situation would have improved to the point where Brown could host a once-in-a-lifetime double Commencement and Reunion Weekend to cheer on both Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 graduates. Unfortunately, even with the prospect of increased vaccine availability on the horizon, much work remains in the fight against COVID. In that context, and after consultation with public health experts, Brown’s senior leaders shared in January 2021 the following decisions about this year’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend:

  • Commencement for the Class of 2021 will take place on campus on May 1 and 2, 2021, in accordance with public health protocols, but families and guests will attend virtually rather than in person. The University expects that most graduates studying remotely during the spring will participate virtually.
  • Despite the hope to welcome back Class of 2020 graduates this spring, the public health situation has made this infeasible; Brown’s Alumni Relations team is working now with Class of 2020 leaders to find a way to meaningfully honor their achievements.
  • All alumni reunions will be held virtually for 2021, with a robust lineup of virtual events.

In establishing this direction early in the semester, the University hopes that students and families will be able to better prepare for celebrating their incredible accomplishments virtually on Commencement weekend and in smaller settings at home or elsewhere in the days and weeks following.

Additional details are available in Brown's January 2021 announcement on Commencement and Reunion Weekend plans and in an update to graduating students sent in March 2021. This list of Frequently Asked Questions on the Commencement website will be updated regularly to address questions from graduates and family members. In the interim, please email [email protected] with any immediate questions.

The University will continue to update this website as new or updated information is made available. Additional notifications may also be shared through other campus communications channels, such as [email protected], the Brown.edu website and/or social media.

Additional FAQs and Information

More FAQs are being added as they are developed.

Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21

Brown’s “Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21” provides the roadmap for the steps Brown is taking to mitigate the impact of the global pandemic during the phased resumption of on-campus instruction and operations.