May 6, 2020
President Christina H. Paxson
Tags Grad and Medical Students

To Brown Graduate and Medical Students: Brown’s planning for the 2020-21 academic year


Dear Graduate and Medical Students,

It has been nearly eight weeks since Brown shifted to remote operations. As we come to the conclusion of the spring semester, I want to express my appreciation for your extraordinary efforts to support our undergraduate students, our community and each other. Your dedication and commitment have been inspiring. Thank you.

As national conversations continue about the uncertain trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic and what it means for institutions like Brown, I am writing to share the University’s emerging plans for the reopening of the campus. Our first priority is to open in a way that assures high standards of safety for Brown employees and students, and preserves Brown’s excellence in academics. Currently, we are planning for a careful and gradual approach that will be aligned with the state’s plans for reopening businesses and industries across Rhode Island, recently announced by Governor Gina Raimondo.

But first, I want to share a decision about Commencement. While I hoped that the state of the pandemic would allow us to celebrate in October, we have made the decision to host a double Commencement in May 2021 — for those who would have participated in Commencement this spring, as well as in spring 2021. Based on the latest health information and expert guidance, we think it is likely that large gatherings still will not be possible early in the fall. As I shared previously, we will mark the important achievement of the completion of degrees this year by inviting families to participate in Virtual Degree Conferral ceremonies taking place May 24, including ceremonies for the Graduate School and the Warren Alpert Medical School.

Resuming On-campus Research for Summer 2020

Between June and August, depending on the containment of the novel coronavirus, the University’s goal is to gradually open research laboratories, extend library services and make it possible for faculty to work from their campus offices if they choose. This reopening will be focused on safeguarding the health and safety of faculty, staff, graduate students and medical students, and no office or laboratory will be able to open without an approved health plan.

Provost Richard M. Locke and Vice President for Research Jill Pipher are leading efforts to resume on-campus research operations in academic units. Department chairs and directors of centers and institutes will receive a communication from them soon, providing guidance for developing plans to enable our faculty, staff and graduate students to return to research safely. Since each department and laboratory is unique in terms of its layout and the kind of work that is conducted, the development of plans will be a collaborative process involving academic leaders, the provost’s office and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

The expectation is that most staff who are currently working remotely will continue to do so through the summer, unless they are needed on campus to support the work of academic units that resume on-campus operations. In these cases, managers will be asked to develop plans that will lead to the safe return of staff members, which will include social distancing, limited numbers of people in offices at any time and plans for additional cleaning. 

Any employee who is asked to return to campus, but who has a health condition that would put them at high risk if they became ill with COVID-19, will have the opportunity to apply to continue working remotely for health-related reasons or to seek other reasonable accommodations. Similarly, students with pre-existing health conditions that place them at high risk will not be expected to return to campus for research activities or will be able to seek reasonable accommodations.

Planning for the Fall Resumption of Classes

As I noted above, Brown’s plans for the coming academic year are based on two foundational principles: (1) first and foremost, to protect the health of our students and employees to the best extent possible, and (2) to provide all of our students with an excellent academic experience.

The mode of how we deliver the educational experience at Brown next year may very likely look different than in past years, but I want to provide the assurance that how we conduct the year will be based on the best expert advice for safeguarding the health of our community and maintaining Brown’s high standards of teaching and learning.

We are planning for a range of different scenarios for the coming year, including variations of the following:

  • A scenario in which we are able to follow our normal academic calendar, welcoming all students back to campus in the fall. (We know that this is optimistic, and it’s largely dependent on the progress in testing and treatment I have noted below.)
  • A scenario in which the University offers three semesters of instruction next year and arranges for undergraduate students to be on campus for two of these semesters, thus providing an environment with  fewer students on campus at any one time.
  • A scenario in which health conditions are such that the fall semester has to be conducted remotely, with a decision about the spring to be made in the middle of the fall semester.

There could be various modifications under any on-campus scenario — reduction in class sizes, hybrid online and in-person learning with livestreamed lectures and smaller group discussion sessions, etc. — depending on containment of the novel coronavirus. In addition, even for an on-campus scenario, we’re planning for delivering education remotely for students who are unable to return to campus because of travel restrictions or health concerns.

Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell will communicate with graduate students about the implications of these scenarios for doctoral students, particularly as they relate to teaching assistants and instruction, as well as study for master’s students. Deans in the Warren Alpert Medical School will establish schedules for medical students.

I plan to make a decision about Brown’s overall planned approach no later than July 15. I understand that many in our community are eager to know what next year will bring, and I would like nothing better than to give you definitive information sooner. However, there is still so much we don’t know about the course of the pandemic. In the coming months, we will learn how health conditions evolve as the U.S. economy begins to reopen, and how quickly innovations in testing, contact tracing and treatment occur. By waiting, we will be able to weigh these factors to make a better and more fully informed decision, which is in the best interest of the health of our community. I appreciate your patience.

Commitment to Workplace Safety

To prepare for the transition to resuming in-person operations on campus, a Personnel Group led by Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow and Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue will develop guidance for academic and administrative managers to implement unit-specific plans for workplace safety. These plans will be informed by direction from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as Brown’s engagement with public health and medical experts and the Rhode Island Department of Health.

We’ll work with managers to consider practices such as social distancing, reductions in staff “density,” use of masks/face coverings or other personal protective equipment and increased cleaning — all depending on the specific nature of the work performed in departments and offices and their workspaces. An ongoing public health information campaign will keep our community informed of the latest guidance and resources.

I want nothing more than to see all of you in person and on campus, as soon as is safely possible. Although the course of the pandemic is beyond our control, we are working as hard as we can to make that a reality. In the meantime, I hope that you stay healthy and well in the weeks and months ahead.


Christina H. Paxson
Brown University