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Paxson outlines factors for students’ possible return to Brown

Future testing and positivity rates will help determine if students can return for phase two of reopening campus

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Clubs have used Zoom meetings, the virtual career fair and taped video auditions to recruit new members in spite of restrictions on in-person meetings.

At the first faculty meeting of the 2020-21 academic year, President Christina Paxson P’19 updated faculty members on the possibility of welcoming more students back to Providence and back into classrooms amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Paxson stressed that a decision has not yet been made as to whether the University will enter the second phase of Brown’s plan for allowing students to return to campus. In this second phase, courses smaller than 20 students would be allowed to meet in-person starting Oct. 5, and returning students who have not yet received permission to come back to campus would be allowed to return later this month. 

To determine whether or not to enter phase two of reopening campus, Paxson said that the University is “looking at the data really carefully and looking at the experience of other schools that have similar testing programs and health education programs.”

Paxson said that the decision to move to phase two rests on a “holistic review of a number of factors.” Those factors include the number of positive cases on campus and in Rhode Island, turnaround time for testing, the level of demand for quarantine space and whether there are infection clusters among students.

While a decision about entering phase two has not yet been announced, the Office of Residential Life sent out a Sept. 2 email asking returning students to fill out a form indicating their preferences for “Phase Two Arrival” and to schedule a move-in date between Sept. 18 and Sept. 20.

If students return to campus for phase two, they will be housed in separate residence halls from those who arrived in phase one. They will be required to adhere to a 14-day quiet period and will be enrolled in the University’s testing program.

An email with the decision will be released to the community before the end of this week.

Paxson said that the University estimates that there are approximately 4,100 students currently in Providence. This number consists of about 1,600 graduate and medical students, and approximately 2,000 juniors and seniors who reside off campus. It also includes roughly 500 undergraduate students who applied to move into on-campus housing before Labor Day.

If the University moves into the second phase of campus reopening, an estimated 900 additional students would move into residence halls, while “perhaps a couple hundred” more students would move into off-campus housing. In total, Paxson said she expects that the shift to phase two would increase the number of undergraduates in Providence by about 50 percent. 

Paxson added that these numbers could shift since students still have time to change their minds about returning to campus.

While Paxson said that she wants to return to “a new normal” — echoing a phase used in Convocation referring to a post-COVID world that is not just the same as pre-COVID, but even better — that is not currently possible.

“We need to realistically expect that we won’t be out of the woods until the spring semester at the earliest,” she said. “This is a long haul, and we all have to be mindful of that fact and pace ourselves.” 

Paxson said that testing on-campus “looks really promising” so far, referring to the current low reported positivity rate of about one positive result out of 1,000 tests. 

Infection rates have also gone down in Rhode Island since the University announced that it was postponing many students’ return to campus. Last week, there were 80 new positive cases on average per day in the state — an 18 percent decrease from previous weeks.

Still, Paxson cautioned that testing “is only one of the tools to keep our community safe.” She warned against becoming complacent in response to low test-positivity rates and urged the community to continue adhering to proper COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that problems arise when people gather together in larger groups without wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart,” Paxson said. A number of colleges have had to shut down recently after reopening campus due to spikes in COVID-19 infections linked to parties hosted and attended by students.

Paxson also added that she is proud of students’ adherence so far to public health guidelines. She said she believes this is in part because students know that “there’ll be swift and serious consequences if they violate the rules,” but also because the majority of students want to ensure the safety of both the University and the surrounding Providence community.

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