Photo: Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Brown University to stagger fall student arrivals

Amid recent rises in COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island and across the nation, Brown University will implement a phased approach to welcoming students back to campus for the fall semester of its 2020-21 academic year, delaying the start of in-person undergraduate instruction until October.

In phase one, Brown will permit only a limited number of students to return to campus in late August, while most undergraduates returning for Fall 2020 begin studies from other locations. All undergraduate classes will be taught remotely from Sept. 9, the first day of fall term instruction, until the week of Oct. 5.

If COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island have declined from their current level over a 14-day period and the number of students who test positive for COVID-19 is sufficiently low, Brown will revert to the approach outlined in its Plan for a Healthy and Safe 2020-21. In alignment with the plan, the University will invite returning undergrads back to campus in late September and begin in-person instruction for small undergraduate courses on Oct. 5. If by Sept. 11 the public health situation has not improved, the remainder of the semester will be remote.

President Christina H. Paxson outlined the modified fall semester plan in an Aug. 11 letter to the campus community, five weeks after the University’s initial 2020-21 plan emphasized flexibility and the importance of course-correcting as necessary based on the pandemic’s trajectory. The public health situation in the country and in Rhode Island has deteriorated over the past several weeks, she noted.

“Given the current landscape, in consultation with public health experts we have determined it best to take a phased approach to the start of in-person instruction for the fall semester,” Paxson wrote. “This staggered arrival of students over a longer time period will better position Brown to address challenges, including quarantine and isolation for any students who test positive for COVID-19. This plan also is in keeping with the data-based and public health-based decision making that has driven our planning since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Paxson wrote that high infection rates across the country pose a significant concern, as does uncertainty on whether Rhode Island’s case count will decline or continue to rise in the coming weeks. While staff at Brown have prepared extensively to support the health and safety of students — setting up an on-campus COVID-19 testing site, training contact tracers, investing in improved air filtration systems, and purchasing additional cleaning supplies — Brown’s quarantine and isolation capacity could be stressed if a large number of returning students simultaneously test positive for COVID-19.

“While safety, always, is our top priority, let me say how sorry I am to be writing this letter,” Paxson wrote. “I know how eager many of our undergraduates are to return to campus, see their friends and take classes in person, and I understand that a delay of even a few weeks is difficult. Please be assured that Brown faculty and staff have worked tirelessly over the last several months to do all that is needed to safely bring students back to campus, but we must confront the reality that bringing students back in smaller numbers is the safer course.”

Brown’s phased approach to bringing students back to campus will not affect graduate and medical students, many of whom are already in Providence or will return to campus before Labor Day, in most cases with opportunities for in-person learning. And the adjustment will not impact the University’s three-term academic calendar for 2020-21; the expectation remains that first-year undergraduates will still arrive for the spring term and continue to the summer term.

This fall, if the University on Sept. 11 determines that resuming in-person instruction is feasible by Oct. 5, undergraduates planning to come to campus will be invited to move in to their residence halls during the week of Sept. 21.

Until then, undergraduates in certain situations can apply for permission to return to campus residence halls on Brown’s original late-August timeline. This includes students who live in unsafe environments, whose living circumstances make remote study difficult or who have previous plans for research that can only be done on campus, as well as international students who cannot travel home, and students with exceptional circumstances.

Every student approved to be on campus regularly, regardless of when they arrive and whether they will live on or off campus in the Providence area, will be required to commit to abiding by a detailed set of health and safety practices during the year. Those include participating in Brown’s routine COVID-19 asymptomatic testing program and following measures to prevent virus spread, including consistent mask wearing, social distancing and increased hand washing to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

Paxson wrote that protecting community health will continue to underpin all decisions, but Brown leaders recognize that the uncertainty of what will happen this fall is exceptionally difficult for students and their families, both logistically and emotionally.

“I want nothing more than to see all of our students back on campus,” she said. “However, we must make decisions that prioritize the health and safety of the Brown community as well as the greater Providence community. I recognize that this year will be unlike any other, but we remained committed to delivering Brown’s world-class education.”