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Planning for our next academic year

Categories: Academics, Leadership communications, Provost, Student Affairs

A message from Persis Drell, Stacey Bent, Susie Brubaker-Cole and Sarah Church

Dear Stanford students and families,

We hope you are doing well, wherever you are here at Stanford or around the world, in this strange new world we are navigating together. In this time of disruption and change, we are thinking about you, and our wishes for your health and wellbeing are stronger than ever.

We’re writing today to provide you with an update on the discussions about our planning for the 2020-21 academic year at Stanford.

Like most universities, we at Stanford are assessing a range of issues and options for next year in a world significantly altered by the coronavirus pandemic. We have not made final decisions about the coming year. But we’d like to provide a window into the considerations that are informing our discussions about next year, with a focus on three areas: student living arrangements, instructional programs and daily living in the time of coronavirus.

Input from students is an important part of these considerations. Many of you provided input about your spring quarter experiences in a recent survey from the university. Students have submitted more than 200 comments so far on a Student Affairs web form soliciting ideas and questions. We’ve also read other input you’ve offered through online commentary. The feedback reflects a mix of views and preferences. It all is helpful in understanding your experiences this quarter and the priorities important to you for the coming year.

While the four of us are writing to you here, our words are informed by the work of many people in the university who are working intensively on these issues. Educational continuity, research recovery, residential planning, student life issues and many other priorities are the focus of work streams that, together, will inform the university’s decisions about the coming year. We’re grateful to those who are dedicating so much time and energy to this work.

Guiding factors for the coming year

We know that everyone’s most fervent hope is to return to campus, for those who are currently studying elsewhere, and resume “normal” life as soon as possible. That is our hope, too, and we’re working in that direction.

But it also has become clear that there is no possibility of an academic year free of the risk of COVID-19 infection. The virus threat will continue until a vaccine or treatments are widely available. The risk of virus exposure also may rise as the sheltering requirements of the last several weeks are gradually lifted.

Returning large numbers of people to campus will require that we have sufficient capacity for viral testing, for contact tracing, for self-isolation for individuals who test positive, and for local hospitalization of those who need it. It will require physical distancing in all of our campus spaces. It will require members of our community to self-report COVID-19 symptoms and to self-isolate when they develop them. We also will need to continue adhering to county and state public health orders.

The net effect is that we cannot expect a normal academic year in 2020-21. It will be a year of change and adaptation.

Our goals are to support the academic progress of our students and the research activity of our scholars, and to provide for the health and safety of everyone in our community. As we consider the factors involved, we’re paying close attention to the susceptibility of members of our community to serious outcomes from potential COVID-19 infection. And, we’re considering how different scenarios may affect our community members differently according to international status, socioeconomic background, learning differences and disability needs.

Based on what we know right now, the scenarios for undergraduate instruction next year at the extremes – for instance, either having all undergraduates fully back on campus in the fall for fully in-person instruction, or at the other extreme, delaying the start of all undergraduate instruction in any format until later in the year – are at this point the least likely of the many scenarios we are considering. Graduate and professional student scenarios are more likely to include hybrids of in-person and remote instruction, given the variability of degree requirements and timelines. We’ll discuss next some of the “hybrid” options that are possible.

Scenarios for student living arrangements

Our undergraduate residential model at Stanford is based on students living and learning together, with continuous new opportunities for interaction and engagement. However, physical distancing to prevent exposure and infection is challenging in our dormitories and other undergraduate living settings.

There is a range of possibilities (some potentially in combination) for undergraduate living while COVID-19 remains a threat. One approach, which some of you have raised in your suggestions, is to reduce the overall density of undergraduates in dormitories by having only one, two or three class years on campus in any given quarter next year, perhaps alternating by quarter. Dining services could continue to provide take-out only, or require assigned dining times by dorm and/or by floor to limit the number of people in dining spaces at any one time.

Another potential direction that some of you have suggested is to delay any residential undergraduate program until winter quarter. Or, there could be other changes to the academic calendar, such as ending the fall quarter before Thanksgiving and so extending the winter break, to reduce the need for undergraduates to travel to and from campus as frequently and thus reduce health risks. We are thinking about all of these options and the tradeoffs they present.

For graduate students, the apartment-style living spaces on and off campus provide for greater physical distancing than do most of our undergraduate residences. However, some adjustments in graduate residential programs may be needed in alignment with physical distancing protocols and county mandates.

Scenarios for instruction

We expect that the continued need for physical distancing (at a minimum of 6 feet) will significantly impact in-person instruction next year. We have a limited number of classrooms that allow for adequate social distancing. We will need to provide learning opportunities for students who would be unable to attend in-person classes for health reasons, and we also must work to protect the health and safety of the faculty and staff who support our students.  Of course, the living situation for undergraduates (above) also interacts importantly with the formats in which we offer courses next year. 

For these reasons, we expect that some degree of remote instruction will continue next academic year. If ongoing public health concerns prevent undergraduate residential programs in the fall, instruction for undergraduates could be delivered fully remotely. If, as we hope, we are able to resume residential programs for some portion of the undergraduate population, instruction may still need to be delivered as a hybrid, with some courses online and others in person, to ensure options for students and faculty with health concerns. Finally, if only one or two undergraduate cohorts are able to return to campus per quarter, we could program four quarters of instruction (including the summer), to allow more students to return to campus over the course of the year.

We also should note that Bing Overseas Studies Program offerings for the coming year are currently being reviewed. The challenges mentioned here for Stanford, such as the need for physical distancing, also apply to our overseas centers. There are also additional complications such as difficulties in international travel during the pandemic, entry requirements such as mandatory quarantines for travelers imposed by several countries, and the overall public health situation in different localities. Each BOSP center’s specific situation is being assessed to determine when the program can resume.

At the graduate and professional level, there is great variability in the delivery of instruction at Stanford, ranging from small seminars and research group meetings, to larger classes, to experiential clinics and practical training. Some of these formats are more likely to be able to resume, while others may need to be offered in hybrid or online format – even if students are living on campus – or even postponed until public health regulations allow activities of partner organizations to resume. We also are setting up working groups to evaluate risks and establish best practices for the many different physical settings in which research and scholarship are done at Stanford.

A ‘new normal’ in daily life

Finally, it’s important to touch on some of the ways we expect campus life to change, as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, for those who are on campus next year. The guidance from public health authorities continues to evolve, but we know that some things are likely at this point.

It’s likely that you will need to wear face coverings regularly, practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings. You’ll be asked to self-report COVID-19 symptoms, isolate if you are sick or receive a positive test result, and quarantine if you have had close contact with someone who has tested positive. Those who are on campus during fall quarter will be asked not to travel outside the local area, and if you need to travel for an emergency, you’ll likely be asked to self-isolate upon returning to campus.

While no one is eager for these and other measures that may be necessary, they will be critical to inhibiting the spread of infection. We’ll ask for your partnership and cooperation in protecting the health of everyone, of all ages and health conditions, in our community.

Our leadership team at Stanford is giving careful consideration to all of the issues we’ve touched on in this letter, and drawing upon new information as it evolves. We also hope for continued insights and input from the community, in addition to what you have already shared. Please continue to use the web form provided by Student Affairs to offer input. Thank you for your suggestions, for your flexibility, and for all that you have been doing over the course of these last several weeks. We look forward to the time we can all be together, once again.


Persis Drell, Provost
Stacey Bent, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs
Susie Brubaker-Cole, Vice Provost for Student Affairs
Sarah Church, Vice Provost for Faculty Development, Teaching and Learning