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University cancels in-person classes, moves to virtual learning

U. to evacuate campus by March 22, transition to online classes starting March 30

All University courses will be canceled starting Monday and will resume online following a two-week break in response to the increasing risk posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Undergraduate students living on campus and in University-owned properties have been asked to leave campus by March 22 and remain away from campus for the rest of the semester, according to a community-wide email sent from President Christina Paxson P’19 Thursday morning. Students with certain circumstances will be allowed to petition to stay on campus.

Remote learning will begin March 30 and will remain in place for the rest of the semester, according to the email. The shift will take place after a two-week break allowing students and faculty to transition to online learning.

Making the decision

The University’s move to remote learning follows its suspension of all non-essential University-sponsored travel and admissions events, as well as the restriction of attendance at athletic events. It also follows Gov. Gina Raimondo’s declaration of a state of emergency in Rhode Island, The Herald previously reported.

This announcement follows similar decisions by several peer institutions across the country, including the rest of the Ivy League.

These changes have been under discussion by the University’s Core Crisis Team for several weeks, University spokesperson Brian Clark told The Herald. “It’s been an evolving conversation, and that’s very much guided by what we are learning from conversations that happened with public health officials,” he said. “The process to make decisions is led by the Core Crisis Team, and decisions are ultimately made by the University and senior leaders.”

Clark added that the members of the Core Crisis Team “have very extensive and deep connections to student concerns,” and that many of the individuals on this committee interact with students on a daily or hourly basis. He said the team considered input from students and from various offices including the Division of Campus Life, academic advisers and the Dean of the College office. “That input is a part of the equation and is informing the way that everybody on the Core Crisis Team is thinking about the implications for members of our community,” Clark said. “That's not the only consideration. First and foremost here is the safety and health and well-being of the broad Brown community and folks whom we interact with beyond our campus.”

These measures align with broader efforts by governments and institutions worldwide to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak, which has not been successfully contained and poses serious threats to public health both locally and globally.

“Fortunately, the COVID-19 mortality rate for young adults appears to be quite low,” Paxson wrote. “However, there are Brown students and employees who, due to age or underlying health conditions, may be at significant risk if they contract the virus. We must take steps to protect them, as well as other vulnerable members of the local community who interact with Brown students on a regular basis.”

The University will remain open for the duration of the semester, and academic and administrative offices will continue to operate, Paxson wrote. “The various offices that support students are making plans to offer their services remotely,” she added.

The Rhode Island School of Design also announced Thursday that it will require students to vacate residence halls by March 22, but it will continue to hold in-person classes until March 20 before transitioning to remote learning March 30, according to an email sent to RISD students.

“This is a unique moment,” Clark said. “It's a public health emergency across the globe. So that is the driving force behind our decisions ... finding the right ways to enable our teaching and learning and research and scholarship to continue to the greatest extent possible, is our second priority.”

Moving off campus

Students “whose circumstances would prevent them from leaving campus due to international travel restrictions or other extraordinary circumstances” may petition for an exception from moving off campus, Paxson wrote. These include international students who may be unable to return to campus later due to visa issues, international students with concerns about the “difficulty returning to their home country due to the prevalence of COVID-19,” students without an alternate place to go and students who would encounter “severe financial hardship” by leaving.

While it is unclear whether there is a specific limit on the number of students who will be able to remain on campus, the Office of Residential Life “will absolutely consider every petition that comes in through that process,” Clark said. He added that decisions will be made based on the individual circumstances of each student.

Students who do remain on campus are unlikely to stay where they are currently living, Clark noted. Although he does not know which facilities will be used to house these students, “members are likely to be asked to move based on what the final numbers look like and what the right approaches from the standpoint of community health (are) for those that remain on campus,” Clark said.

Students granted exceptions are required to remain on campus through spring break, but “should fully pack their belongings for reassignment to a new residence” after March 22, according to Paxson’s email. Exceptions will be decided on a “rolling basis” beginning Monday, March 16.

A number of offices, including International Student and Scholar Services “will work with students individually to support a lot of the questions around travel” and visa status, Clark said.

“A major concern is that Brown simply does not have the facilities or personnel needed to manage the large-scale quarantine or isolation of students that would be necessary if the virus begins to spread through our residential student community,” Paxson wrote. “The only way to limit this risk is to dramatically reduce the number of students residing at Brown.”

For the “unused portion of their room and board,” students will receive a credit on their student accounts based on their family’s contribution, she wrote.

In addition, the on-campus housing lottery has been postponed for two weeks, according to ResLife in a separate email sent to students living on-campus or in Brown-owned properties Thursday morning.

Moving courses online

Faculty members have been preparing for this change in recent days by familiarizing themselves with online teaching tools, especially Zoom video conferencing. The University continues to offer remote teaching training sessions to professors and teaching assistants.

The Department of Computer Science, which has started virtualizing nearly all of its classes this week, decided to “start early” in anticipation of University’s decision.

The department is still working to move teaching assistants’ interactions with students online, using “home build software” and Zoom to have one-on-one conversations with students virtually.

“One big issue with (remote learning) is what sort of interactions are we going to have with virtualized classes. This becomes a problem particularly if students are going home to different time zones,” said Thomas Doeppner, associate professor and vice chair of the CS department.

While online classes “may not be the best possible experience … we are going to do our best to make sure we can move on,” Doeppner added.

For some classes, such as dance classes, art studios and classes involving hands-on labs, moving online may seem difficult or impossible. But faculty are working on solutions that will allow students to continue to progress academically. “I don’t know that I can share with you precisely what a dance course would look like,” Clark said, “but that’s a decision that faculty in that department are working through, with support from University offices, in order to figure out what may work best.”

Faculty are “encouraged” to teach during reading week to make up for the classes missed

during the week of March 16, according to Paxson’s email.

Study abroad programs impacted

The Office of International Programs is also suspending many international study abroad programs taking place in Europe, according to an email from Director of International Travel Risk Management Christine Sprovieri and Director of the Office of International Programs Kendall Brostuen, sent Thursday to students currently abroad.

This decision aligns with University policy that “dictates the suspension of programs taking place in countries with a (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) designation of Warning Level 3,” according to the email. The CDC elevated Western Europe to a Level 3 warning March 11, telling travelers to avoid “all non-essential travel to this destination.”

Commencement and Reunion Weekend

Since the condition of the pandemic weeks or months from now is difficult to predict, the University has not yet made a decision about whether Commencement and Reunion Weekend will take place as usual.

“In an ideal world, if the situation with COVID abates over the coming month, we are going to welcome students, seniors and their families back to campus and hold Commencement, and in a way that doesn't look tremendously different from what happens every year,” Clark said. “I don't know whether that's possible; nobody does at this point. So for that reason, we are jumping into the work of exploring what do alternatives look like.”

These alternatives could include holding Commencement and Reunion weekend at a later date or in a different format, Clark said.

“Commencement and Reunion Weekend is a massive undertaking” at the University, he added, “so we're certainly hopeful about making a decision in the coming weeks, but we're ... putting that off until we can make it based on our current information.”


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