July 7, 2020
President Christina H. Paxson
Tags Faculty and Staff

To Brown Faculty and Staff: Brown’s plan for the 2020-21 academic year


Dear Brown Faculty and Staff Community,

For the past several months, multiple working groups at Brown have been exploring a range of options for safe operations for the 2020-21 academic year amid the global pandemic. This planning has been guided by advice from medical and public health professionals, and informed by guidelines coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). The focus at all times has been how we can best protect the health of our students, staff, faculty and Providence residents while delivering Brown’s world-class education, continuing critical research, and remaining a valued neighbor in our city, state and region.

Currently, cases of COVID-19 are trending down in Rhode Island, and the state has moved into Phase 3 of its reopening plan. In light of these trends, we are planning for the return of students to campus this fall, based on a three-semester academic calendar and other policies and practices that will reduce the density of students, faculty and staff on campus, and give all students the opportunity to spend two semesters on campus.

The details for how we will do this are available in Brown’s “Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21.” The plan outlines the public health steps that are being put in place 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 at least through early fall. It also includes changes in modes of instruction, with most courses being delivered online, and only courses or sections with 20 or fewer students taking place in person; modifications for undergraduate students in terms of housing, dining and extracurricular activities; and the implementation of strict protocols for personal health, distancing, cleaning and regular testing that will be essential for safeguarding the well-being of our community.

Even with these public health steps, it is impossible to ensure that no one in our community will become ill with COVID-19 during the coming academic year. Our plan is based upon the forthright acknowledgement that any college, university or community will likely see diagnosed cases of COVID-19 until the point that a vaccine is widely available, just as is the case in the general population.

Our plans are based on the best current available data and public health recommendations. However, there is still great uncertainty about how the pandemic will evolve across regions of the country and the world, and the pace at which treatments and vaccines will be developed. Everyone in our community will have to approach this year understanding that we may need to make mid-course changes or adjustments to how instruction is offered, housing is configured, and public health protocols are implemented on campus. We recognize there are concerning trends of COVID-19 cases elsewhere in the country, and it’s essential that we remain flexible as the situation evolves. As always, we will approach any changes with a commitment to community principles that place a premium on the health and well-being of our students and employees and on providing an excellent educational experience.

In this letter, I provide an overview of the most important components of Brown’s plans:

  1. Reducing the density of students on campus through the three-term academic model;
  2. Testing and contact tracing with the goal of preventing community spread of coronavirus; and
  3. Requiring campus public health practices that are essential to the health and safety of a residential campus.

1. Reduced Density of Students on Campus

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

  • The fall term will begin Sept. 9, 2020. After Thanksgiving break (which will begin at noon on Nov. 25), there will be a weeklong remote reading period from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, followed by a remote final exam period Dec. 7-11.
  • The spring term will begin Jan. 20, 2021. Remote reading period will begin April 12 and will be followed by remote final exams April 19-23.
  • The summer term will begin May 12, 2021. Remote reading period will begin Aug. 2 and will be followed by remote final exams Aug. 9-13.

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

All students will be given the option to enroll in their courses remotely, whether they are on campus or not, and all faculty will be given the option of teaching in person or remotely. As noted above, limiting in-person class sizes to 20 students will enable safe distancing of students and instructors within classrooms. In addition, every classroom space will have a six-foot or greater separation between individuals. Faculty with health or other concerns have the option to teach, mentor and advise online in the fall. Should the public health situation not improve, this option will be extended throughout the spring and summer semesters as well.

Although I am deeply disappointed that we can’t welcome our first-year students to campus in the fall, we simply don’t think that it is safe to have all undergraduates on campus simultaneously. We hope that by the time the spring term begins, the public health situation will have improved enough that we no longer need a de-densified campus. If so, sophomores will be able to stay for the spring term. However, if the public health situation has not improved, it is possible that sophomores could be asked to leave for the spring term to accommodate the arrival of first-year students, and either return for the summer term or take the spring term remotely. We expect to be able to make this decision by mid-fall.

We have built flexibility into this plan to address special circumstances. Sophomores, juniors and seniors who cannot return in the fall for reasons such as travel restrictions, visa delays or underlying health conditions will be able to take courses remotely, or delay the start of their year until the spring. (Note, however, that many advanced concentration requirements will be offered in the fall only.) New first-year students with significant health or safety concerns related to delaying their start until January will be encouraged to contact Student Support Services to be connected with a dean who can work with them to formulate a plan.

This modified calendar will not affect graduate student programs, as graduate student courses will continue to be held in the fall and spring, with summer devoted to research and field work. The University will hire additional TAs as needed to bridge any gaps in summer undergraduate instruction.

2. Testing and Contact Tracing

Testing and contact tracing for all Brown employees and students are essential for campus safety. On June 17, Provost Richard M. Locke and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow provided an update on a summer pilot testing program that the University launched with an external life sciences and health care provider. As we plan for the fall, all members of the community working or approved to be on campus will be required to be tested for COVID-19 when they return to Brown and, if asked, to participate in random testing. This randomized sample testing will help monitor for community spread of coronavirus, identify the proportion of asymptomatic positive cases and identify the proportion of members of our community with potential immunity to the disease over time. All of this testing will be free of charge.

Members of the Brown community will also be required to use a digital tool via their computers or mobile devices to schedule tests and record daily symptoms. This tool is designed to protect individual privacy. The University will not have access to information on individuals’ movements, and symptoms data will only be used after names have been removed. Data from the tool will be useful for identifying health trends on campus and informing the amount of routine testing that is needed. Anyone required to participate in the testing program will also need to monitor their symptoms for COVID-19 on a daily basis.   

In the event that someone in our community tests positive, the University has trained contact tracers who will work with RIDOH to locate community members who may have been exposed to COVID-19. We are setting aside special dormitory space for isolation (for students who contract the virus) and quarantine (for students who have been exposed). Brown’s plans have been informed by epidemiological models, and the University will closely monitor evolving developments in testing methods to take advantage of the most effective testing strategies.

3. Campus Public Health Practices

Life on campus this fall will be very different. All members of our community will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing when they are in public places. Large group gatherings will be limited — meeting and at times exceeding state guidelines limiting such gatherings — and activities that require travel to other locations will be restricted.

Events will be largely online, or shaped by reduced capacity of spaces, social distancing, hand washing, wearing masks and other health protocols. Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces will become part of daily routines. We will reduce the numbers of students living in proximity to each other and the number of students who need to be quarantined if an infection is positively identified.  

Each and every member of our community will be expected to take responsibility for their own health and the health of others. We celebrate the fact that Brown is a community filled with people who care about each other. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, that culture of caring must translate into scrupulous attention to evidence-based public health practices. Caring as much about others as we do ourselves will be critical and essential. Students will play an important role in an extensive education and prevention initiative to support community adoption of public health practices, and it will be important for faculty and staff to model health practices with students and among colleagues.

Employees approved to resume work on campus must complete workplace safety training requirements in advance of their first day of returning to campus. In addition, all members of the community who work or are otherwise approved to be on campus must follow safety guidelines at all times while working in their offices, traveling to and from campus buildings, using the University’s shuttles, or using their own personal transportation. Students, faculty and staff will be required to sign an acknowledgement form that they will follow required public health practices, and that they understand that disregard of public health practices is a conduct violation that could result in removal from campus for students and disciplinary action for others working on campus.

Of course, we hope that we can return to the more traditional daily life at Brown as soon as possible, as treatments and, eventually, a vaccine for coronavirus are developed. However, despite the constrained circumstances imposed by the pandemic, I am confident that the elements that contribute to the vitality of Brown will continue unaffected — the close connections students have with faculty and one another, vigorous class discussions, collaboration among colleagues, and being part of a diverse and inclusive campus community.

Major Events

Among the common questions we have received is whether Brown has made a decision about the date for graduation and reunion ceremonies. We expect to hold Commencement and Reunion Weekend from April 30 to May 2, 2021, following the end of the spring term. We will honor the Class of 2020, which had their Commencement activities delayed, and the Class of 2021 during the weekend’s events. This planning assumes that public health conditions will allow large events to safely take place, and dates could shift if public health guidance prompts changes to Brown’s academic calendar. Further information will soon be available on the Commencement website.

Conferences, lectures, performances and other events will continue to be subject to policies for distancing, with expectations that they be held remotely. A final decision on fall athletics competition has not yet been announced by the Ivy League. That announcement is expected on July 8.

Important Next Steps

A great deal of work has already been done by faculty and staff to prepare for the potential of this three-semester de-densified model. Curricular plans have been adjusted, and the Registrar is working with departments to upload courses into Banner and [email protected] In the coming days, you will hear directly from Provost Locke and EVP Chernow about additional details regarding important matters such as testing, workplace safety guidance, on-campus dining options and shuttle services for those who will be designated to work on campus, or are continuing to work on campus for essential operations.

A number of offices across Brown also will be sending messages to colleagues in the coming days and weeks to implement academic plans for fall. In particular, the College will distribute communications regarding advising and guidance on syllabi; DLD/Sheridan Center and the University Library will share resources to support instruction; and the Brown Bookstore and Library will be in contact about course materials. 

Provost Locke and I have an open session with faculty planned for Wednesday, July 15, from noon to 1 p.m., and we look forward to discussing academic planning resources at that time. A town hall for staff will be held on Thursday, July 16, from 3 to 4 p.m.

I know that this is a great deal of information, and I encourage you to bookmark Healthy.Brown.edu, the website that will serve as an evolving resource as we continue to develop the protocols and practices to ensure the well-being of our community during the 2020-21 academic year.

Once again, thank you for all you have done over the last several months in support of Brown’s mission of teaching and research. I look forward to the work we’ll do together in the weeks and months ahead to usher in a new year.


Christina H. Paxson