July 7, 2020
President Christina H. Paxson
Tags Grad and Medical Students

To Brown Graduate Students: Brown’s plan for the 2020-21 academic year


Dear Brown Graduate Students,

For the past several months, multiple working groups at Brown have been exploring a range of options for safely providing teaching and learning for students this fall 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-term academic calendar and other policies and practices that will reduce the density of students, faculty and staff 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 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.

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 fieldwork. All returning graduate and undergraduate students will be given the option to take courses remotely, for any reason, whether they are in Providence or not. All faculty and graduate students will be given the option of instructing (including serving as a Teaching Assistant) 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.

Incoming graduate students who cannot arrive in the fall for reasons such as travel restrictions, visa delays or underlying health conditions may request a deferral in consultation with their graduate program. We will work with international students to develop academic plans for degree completion that are in compliance with federal guidelines. Some incoming graduate students may be able to begin their courses remotely but should check with their graduate program directly. 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.

2. Testing and Contact Tracing

Testing and contact tracing for all Brown students and employees are essential for campus safety. Graduate students who are resuming research on campus this summer during the initial phased research ramp-up are already participating in a COVID-19 testing pilot. On June 17, Provost Richard M. Locke and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow provided an update on the summer pilot testing program that the University launched with Verily, a life sciences and health care provider.

All students are required to be tested for COVID-19 when they return to campus for courses, research and teaching 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.

Students and other members of the Brown community will also be required to use a digital tool via their computers or mobile devices that is used to schedule tests and record daily symptoms. This tool is designed to protect students’ privacy. The University will not have access to information on student where students go, and symptoms data will only be used after students’ 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.

In the event that someone in our community tests positive, the University has trained contact tracers who will work with RIDOH to locate people who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Students should be prepared to isolate where they live if they test positive, or quarantine if they have been exposed, in compliance with state health guidelines. 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

Students returning to campus must understand that life on campus this fall will be different. All members of our community will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing when they are in public places. For graduate students who are on meal plans, dining will be on a “grab and go” basis. 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. Students who are coming to Brown from locations outside of Rhode Island will have to abide by any Rhode Island quarantine and travel restrictions that are in effect at the time of arrival.

Activities and events will be shaped by reduced capacity of spaces, social distancing, hand washing, wearing masks and other health protocols. And cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces will become part of daily routines.

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. Additionally, students will be required to sign an attestation 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. Faculty and staff will be required to sign a similar acknowledgement, providing their understanding that violations can lead to disciplinary action.

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 differences imposed by the pandemic, I am confident that the elements that contribute to the vitality of Brown’s education will continue unaffected: the close connections with faculty, vigorous classroom discussions, collaboration with colleagues, and engagement with students whose life experiences differ from your own.

Major Events

Among the common questions we have received is whether Brown has made a decision about the date for graduation ceremonies. We expect to hold Commencement and Reunion Weekend from Friday, April 30, to Sunday, May 2, 2021, following the end of spring term. 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.

Important Next Steps

I am sure you have many questions about the details of the coming academic year. Please be assured that answers are coming — in the coming days, you will receive communications from relevant offices across the University sharing:

  • Further information about the academic calendar, including the start and end of classes for each of the three terms, and shopping, reading and exam periods;
  • Information about pre-registration for courses;
  • Implications of the three-semester model for graduate students;
  • Resources available both on and off campus;
  • Remote starting options; and
  • Information for incoming graduate students regarding orientation and becoming part of the Brown community.

Before your academic term begins, you’ll also receive detailed information about COVID-19 testing principles and health protocols. I invite you to read the full plan outlining Brown’s academic-year planning, which includes further specifics about everything I have discussed in this message.

I know that this is a great deal of information, and I encourage you also 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.

For those who choose to be in Providence, I look forward to seeing you on campus in the coming year.


Christina H. Paxson