By Kristen Mitchell
The George Washington University held a series of virtual forums last week to answer questions from students and families, faculty, staff and neighbors about the university’s decision to continue online instruction this spring as an additional 1,500 residential students are welcomed back to campus.
The spring decision was informed by the university’s foremost priority of health and safety, the current spread of the virus and the continued uncertainty about the course of the pandemic over the next several months, both locally and nationally. This decision was made based on feedback from the GW community, including continued concern for health and safety, a desire for flexibility and a need for definitive information that allows ample time for planning.
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, Scott Burnotes, vice president of safety and facilities, as well as academic leadership and other university leaders took questions during seven forums attended by thousands of members of the university community. Participants’ questions included who will be allowed on campus, how the decision to remain virtual was made and what the spring virtual and on-campus experience will offer.
Dr. LeBlanc opened the first virtual forum for undergraduate students and families Wednesday morning and thanked the GW community for their understanding, patience and support as the university navigated the start of the fall semester and planned for spring. He emphasized the decision for a virtual spring semester was grounded in the priorities of health, safety and care.
“We’ve been very carefully working with our experts in public health, in medicine, in nursing, and safety and security to make sure that every decision we make first and foremost supports the health, safety and care of our community and yet allow us to support our core academic mission of teaching and scholarship,” he said. “It was clear from the advice of our experts that the current spread of the virus and the continued uncertainty about the course of the virus both locally and nationally at this point would not allow us to safely return to normal operations on our campus in the D.C. community.”
Dr. LeBlanc highlighted the ways the GW community has innovated to come together in the virtual environment—from faculty bringing innovative teaching methods into the classrooms, to online events designed to bring students together.
Here are some of the common questions asked during the forums:
How was the determination for spring semester made when the pandemic is still very fluid?
Cases of COVID-19 continue to climb nationwide as the cold weather approaches in what is referred to as the third wave of the virus. Public health experts are monitoring increased transmission with greater concern than they were over the summer, Dr. Goldman said.
The positivity rate among the GW on-campus cohort has stayed low, in part because of required weekly testing, daily symptom monitoring, reduced on-campus population and more. However, in light of widespread national transmission and GW’s location in a major metropolitan area, leadership determined it was best to continue with virtual courses and remote work for those who can.
GW leaders determined that bringing an increased but still limited number of students back to campus for spring semester could support a positive residential experience while still minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“We are a large presence downtown in the district, so basically for us to bring all the students back, it’s well over 10,000 students on campus,” Dr. Blake said. “Making these decisions, we’re trying to understand our impact on the community in that context.”
Dr. Goldman said the university has an obligation to protect students, faculty, staff and the wider D.C. community. The university wants to avoid a situation where students have to be sent home from campus mid-semester, she said, adding that the experience of spring 2020 was a challenge for the community that should be avoided.
“We don’t want to find ourselves in a position where we have created the environment where the virus can go out of control and then we have to take a drastic measure like that, which we are seeing in many other instances,” she said.
Who will be able to access campus this spring?
While classes will continue in a virtual format with limited exceptions, the university expects to open up additional housing to allow up to 1,500 students to join the on-campus cohort for spring. Interested students are asked to apply for housing by 10 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2. If more than 1,500 students apply, the university will conduct a lottery to allocate housing spaces. These students will join the cohort of around 500 existing on-campus residents.
Students who return to the residence halls must agree to follow both the university and the District of Columbia’s health and safety guidelines and directives that are in place during this pandemic. Currently, individuals from 42 states must quarantine for 14 days after arriving in D.C.
Off-campus residents and other individuals who have not been granted access to GW’s campuses will not have access to facilities such as Gelman Library and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center. Mr. Burnotes said these restrictions are critical to maintaining low positivity rates on campus.
“The way that we can ensure testing compliance is by controlling access,” Mr. Burnotes said. “When we open the doors, if you will, our ability to control that and identify someone who is potentially positive and the interconnections that they have, we lose that capability.”
The university also is offering testing to off-campus students under certain criteria.
The university is not anticipating any major changes to telework status. Individuals who are teleworking now can expect to continue. Undergraduate Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon students who do not live on campus will continue to receive a 10% tuition reduction, and graduate tuition will remain frozen for spring.
How can students stay connected and involved during the spring semester?
The university has put significant effort into creating hundreds of fun and impactful virtual events that help students stay connected to the GW community during the time when they cannot be on campus. These range from events aimed at helping students prepare to enter the professional world, to connecting with high-profile speakers such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Dr. Petty and Associate Dean of Students Colette Coleman continue to hold “Chat with the Deans” events regularly, giving them the opportunity to connect directly with students. At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Petty said she was concerned they would not be able to replicate the welcoming and intimate environment supported by these informal events, but now feels like she’s been able to connect deeply with the often smaller groups that attend.
“I think we’ve all been pretty creative,” Dr. Petty said. “Now will I love the day that I can walk through campus and just sit and have lunch with somebody, or go over to MSSC and hang out? Absolutely. But we’re dedicated to spending this kind of time with our students virtually.”
In addition to the virtual events, the on-campus cohort has been able to participate in socially distanced, outdoor activities around Foggy Bottom, including a recent walk to the National Mall with Dr. LeBlanc. Virtual and recorded events also cater to international students who are living in different time zones.
How does the spring plan impact GW’s financial situation?
Because the possibility of being virtual in the spring was already a part of GW’s financial planning, there are no new budget reductions associated with the spring decision.
“When we were building our financial mitigation plan, we anticipated the possibility, if not the likelihood, that we would be virtual in the spring,” said Dr. LeBlanc. “This has not created an additional financial burden for the university. The steps that we have taken that we announced publicly earlier in the semester will also cover the virtual experience in the spring, so we will not need to do additional mitigation steps because of this decision.”
In September, Dr. LeBlanc announced the university’s remaining steps to finalize the current fiscal year’s budget mitigation, including the use of unrestricted university assets and reductions in non-recurring expenses at the discretion of the deans and unit leadership. The university’s base and matching retirement contributions for faculty and staff are temporarily suspended, and the university will provide another update on these contributions in December.
Why did GW decide not to hold an in-person commencement in the spring?
The university plans a virtual commencement ceremony in the spring. There is a strong desire among the GW community to bring students, faculty, staff, families and alumni together, however, Mr. Burnotes stressed the top priority of health and safety in all planning.
Large First Amendment events have been held recently on the National Mall, but the process and the expectations of a march is very different from a stationary event to celebrate a special occasion, Mr. Burnotes said.
“The public health guidelines continue to stress the need to limit large gatherings across the United States,” he said. “The data compiled during contact tracing supports those guidelines and in fact it also supports that large gatherings do pose an increased risk on the community.”
Mass gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited during the current phase of D.C.’s reopening plan. The university will continue to monitor the pandemic and latest guidance and will reconsider plans for commencement if there is a dramatic change in the pandemic. Recordings of the virtual forums are available on GW’s Coronavirus Response website.