Virtual Forums Answer Fall 2020 Questions

With the university shifting to online-only instruction in the fall, university leadership hosted a series of virtual forums to address community questions and concerns.

August 06, 2020

George Washington University recently decided to hold all undergraduate courses and most graduate courses virtually, and with that decision comes numerous questions from the university community.

To address the questions that the revised plan raises, the university held nine virtual forums over the past several days—each of which could accommodate 1,000 participants—for first-year students and families, returning undergraduate students and families, graduate students, international students, faculty, staff and neighbors. Recordings of the sessions are available on GW’s fall plan site.

GW President Thomas LeBlanc, Provost M. Brian Blake, M.L. “Cissy” Petty, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, and other university leaders at the various forums took questions from thousands of members of the university community via chat functions. Participants’ questions included who will be allowed on campus and public health protocols for those people, how the decision to go virtual was made and what will be the next steps for the GW community.

The administration hoped to bring GW students back to campus this fall with rigorous safety precautions in place, Dr. LeBlanc said, but the data trends for the coronavirus pandemic’s resurgence in a number of states, as well as growing concerns from faculty and students about returning to campus, influenced the decision to shift to online-only instruction for the upcoming semester.

Dr. LeBlanc said that safety has been the highest priority in all decision-making. In prioritizing safety while pursuing the university’s core mission, Dr. LeBlanc said, online-only learning for fall is the best way to maintain a safe environment.

“Every data point we looked at said we now have to take very seriously the fact that in-person instruction with a significant population was no longer viable,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We have been considering how we can best support the health, safety and care of our community while simultaneously continuing with our very important mission of teaching and research.

“We know how important college is to the families and students that are listening today,” Dr. LeBlanc said during the forum for returning students and families. “We’re working very hard to provide you with that education despite the constraints that we face.”

Dr. LeBlanc said that the university will continue to monitor the pandemic and make any determinations about the spring semester at a later date.

Here are some of the common questions asked during the forums:

Who can be on campus? What are the requirements for coming to Washington, D.C.?

Very few students will be on campus this fall, said Dr. Petty, and most students should not plan to come to D.C. at all. Dr. Petty said she does not want students to come to D.C. and find themselves in situations that compromise their safety and care.

“We’re in a pandemic, so we need to make sure that we are giving you the right message,” she said.

With few exceptions, faculty and staff also should not plan to come on campus, and access to campus buildings will be granted only on a very limited basis.  Staff should continue to telework until further notice.

Housing has been offered to a very limited number of students with extenuating circumstances.  Those students will have their own bedroom to ensure social distancing. Students will only have GWorld access to their residence hall and no visitors will be permitted.

When incoming students can come to campus, there will be a second orientation to introduce them to the campus. This semester off-campus will count toward the six-semester on-campus living requirement for undergraduate students.

Those students planning to come to Washington, D.C., must adhere to the District’s required COVID-19 safety measures. For example, D.C. requires that travelers from 27 high-risk states self-quarantine for 14 days once they arrive in the city. The city will be updating its list of high-risk states every two weeks in response to the changing data. There are also face covering and social distancing requirements in place that are being enforced, so those coming to the District need to monitor the District’s COVID-19 website for the latest guidance.

What are the COVID-19 testing and safety plans for the fall?

For the few who will be on campus, they will be tested for COVID-19 upon their arrival to the university. They will also be tested five days later to ensure that the campus is starting out “COVID-free,” said Dr. Goldman. Those who are on campus or using campus facilities will also be tested regularly throughout the semester.

Everyone who will be on campus needs to commit to the testing policies, Dr. Goldman said, as well as safety policies regarding social distancing and wearing face coverings.

All members of the GW community traveling from high-risk states (as defined by the District of Columbia at will be told to self-quarantine for approximately 14 days upon arrival back to the national capital region. They will also be asked to immediately start daily symptom screening. The university will maintain a list of residential students who are quarantining on campus as required by the District.

The university will require isolation for any GW community member who tests positive for COVID-19. GW will require quarantine for individuals who meet the current medical definition of COVID-19 exposure while test results are pending or until the 14-day quarantine period is complete. Students who live on campus will quarantine/isolate in place. All contacts of COVID-19 infected individuals should maintain quarantine for 14 days, self-monitor symptoms and consult with a health care provider if symptoms develop.

Students will be able to access telemedicine care and virtual counseling services through the Colonial Health Center, as well as COVID-19 diagnostic visits and testing through university-provided or personal family health insurance.

What tuition and financial aid adjustments will be made in light of the new reopening plan?

In recognition of the change in educational experience that students will have, there will be a 10 percent reduction in undergraduate tuition for those who do not live on campus. Additionally, there will not be a tuition increase for graduate students for the 2020-21 academic year. Dr. Blake said that this decision felt like a fair way to address this change in educational experience.

“At the undergrad level, we knew that students that would not have access to campus, they would’ve had a more immersive experience with our residential facilities, and we felt like that was a large part of that experience for those students,” Dr. Blake said. “Even though there’s no formulaic way, it felt like the right thing to do for those students.

“At the graduate level, we thought the experience was a bit more diverse,” Dr. Blake said. “Not to diminish their loss, it just felt like by suspending an increase in tuition, that would be a commensurate move for that population.”

Financial aid packages are in the process of being recalculated now, Dr. Blake said, and students should receive updated information over the next week. Students involved with federal work study should still be able to take advantage of virtual opportunities, he said, and there will be virtual student employment opportunities through the university as well.

What will virtual instruction look like this fall?

Classes in the fall will have both asynchronous learning, which will include pre-recorded lectures or discussion boards, and synchronous learning, which will include lectures in real-time or live chat rooms. If a course indicates a meeting time in the registration system, then it will likely incorporate synchronous learning, Dr. Blake said.

Faculty will work to accommodate time-zone differences for students, and that may include a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning and multiple lectures at different times. There will also be more flexibility in testing. Students should reach out to their professors if they have concerns or conflicts around meeting synchronous course requirements. Faculty members have been training for virtual instruction over the summer, and the university library offers Blackboard workshops for faculty so they can adjust their syllabus for a virtual learning experience.

Students whose programs have laboratory requirements can meet those requirements through virtual simulations, Dr. Blake said, which the university started doing in the spring and invested in technology to expand those capabilities over the summer. Students can purchase their textbooks and course materials online, and GW is offering free delivery from for the month of August.

Additionally, many class sizes will be expanded to include those on waitlists, but they cannot be expanded indefinitely, Dr. Blake said. This is to ensure that students still receive the education they’ve come to expect from GW. The university will also return to the original academic calendar with classes beginning on Aug. 31 and the inclusion of holidays such as Fall Break and Thanksgiving Break.

What is the economic impact of the decision to go virtual in the fall?

The university developed three potential reopening scenarios this fall with varying estimates of revenue losses between $100 million and $300 million, Dr. LeBlanc said. With the decision to go completely virtual, the university is estimating a $220 million financial impact, Dr. LeBlanc said, because of the loss of residence hall revenue and the auxiliary income streams from students being on campus, as well as a projected decline in enrollment. That figure represents a loss of about 20 percent of the university’s annual budget.

The magnitude of the financial impact means that the university has had to introduce personnel actions as part of the mitigation plan, said Mark Diaz, executive vice president and chief financial officer. GW has been doing everything possible to avoid a blunt instrument approach to personnel decisions such as assigning targets for department heads to eliminate positions, Mr. Diaz said.

GW is in the process of operationalizing the mitigation plan, including layoffs, and decisions on additional actions such as furloughs should be made over the next week or so, Mr. Diaz said.  An update will be shared with the university community as soon as possible.

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