Administration responds to COVID-19, classes go online
In response to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the University has moved its classes online and required that students who live on campus leave by Wednesday, instead of the previous date of March 25, University President Ron Liebowitz announced in an email on Monday.
In a previous email on March 11, Liebowitz explained, “COVID-19 presents the Brandeis community with an unprecedented challenge due to daily changes in guidance from state and federal authorities and the lack of knowledge of the virus. It is clear, however, that we must take steps to help limit the spread of the coronavirus by reducing our density of population on campus.”
In a joint interview on March 16 with University President Ron Liebowitz, Provost Lisa Lynch, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Raymond Ou and The Brandeis Hoot, the administrators all touched upon why there was a sudden change on Monday requiring students to be off campus a week earlier than anticipated.
“What changed is that it is changing as we speak,” Liebowitz said. He referenced Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s statement, which, among other things, closed Massachusetts schools for three weeks, in addition to information from Massachusetts State health officials that students should leave as soon as possible.
Lynch added that the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center and the Library will be closed starting Tuesday, according to the University's Monday announcement, as these were areas that needed to be closed to help in lessening the virus’s spread. “People are saying go out and take a walk. Go outside, breathe some fresh air, but don’t do that in the gym,” she said. The gym will be closed for recreational access.
“With respect to the library, it became increasingly clear that we would have difficulty being in compliance with the governor’s directive” in terms of people being in small enough groups spread across the library. The library resources will be accessible via email and Zoom.
On Tuesday, the dining halls food service will be take-out only in Lower Usdan, Upper Usdan and Sherman Dining Hall, Uretsky said. The Brandeis Food Pantry closed Monday based on public health advice, Lynch announced in a separate email on March 16.
Although there have been no confirmed cases of the virus on campus, there are “a number of community members who are under quarantine because they have been notified by public health officials that they had close contacts with a person being tested for COVID-19,” Liebowitz wrote on Monday. All of the affected individuals are self-quarantining, according to a March 13 email from Liebowitz.
During the Monday interview, Ou explained the University’s planned protocol for how to handle a situation in which there was a confirmed case on campus, although there have been no positive tests so far. “We have been planning for this for quite a while,” he said.
If a student thinks they could have been exposed to the virus, Ou said, the University would put this person in touch with the Administrative Director of the Health Center, Diana Denning. The Health Center would also consult with the Department of Public Health, Ou explained, to follow state guidelines and to make sure Brandeis is not handling the situation alone. Students are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, the current guideline, during which time Student Affairs will check on the student’s condition and to see if students need anything, Ou said.
Ou added that once the school knows that exposure is possible, even before a positive test result, the University will reach out to others who may have been exposed to the virus.
All University classes will now be online, most often live-streamed through Zoom, an online web conferencing software. The University had initially planned for lectures with more than 100 students to be virtualized on Monday and the remaining classes to be moved online by March 26, but it accelerated the transition to contend with the growing number of global travel restrictions and to encourage students to leave campus sooner, according to Liebowitz’s Sunday email. To accommodate the large number of students taking online classes, the University has upgraded its Zoom software to allow 500 users at a time.
In the Monday interview, Lynch shared that in conversations with faculty, she has emphasized that “we can’t try to set a standard for ourselves that we are literally going to move from an in-person, intense, residential experience that we take great pride in and move online and expect that experience to be identical.” She called on the campus community to be “a little forgiving to one another” and to recognize that staff, faculty and students are “building the airplane while we’re flying it.”
Lynch also highlighted messages for faculty. Normal expectations for in-class work and participation “need to be modified” because students will be traveling and living in different time zones for the rest of the semester. The University is also “suspending all exams” through March 26, a detail of Liebowitz’s March 15 email that Lynch has called on department chairs and deans to reiterate to faculty.
The University is working with Brandeis’ Center for Teaching and Learning to ensure that online learning remains Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act compliant, Director of Presidential Communications Terence Burke wrote in an email to the Justice on Monday.
The implementation of online instruction is in line with a practice known as “social distancing,” which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Social distancing involves avoiding large social gatherings and close contact with others as much as possible to slow the spread of disease.
All events and meetings with more than 20 participants will be canceled or postponed, and Liebowitz encouraged students in his March 11 email to virtualize any gathering with fewer than 20 people.
Brandeis follows several other Boston-area schools, including Harvard University, Boston University and Tufts University, in moving to online classes and working to get students to leave campus if they are able.
Lynch explained that, starting a week ago on Sunday, the University spoke to healthcare leaders in the Greater Boston area for “guidance and support with respect to the kinds policies that we needed to put in place at the University.” Although we are not aware of just how widespread the virus is in the Greater Boston area due to a lack of testing, “it is here,” she said, and experts predict it is likely that by the end of the summer probably 50 to 70 percent of the population in Boston will end up having coronavirus, even if most people will have no or mild symptoms. The University is trying to contribute to the effort to spread out when people with more acute reactions will need access to medical services. “In this way we hope to lower the mortality rate associated with the coronavirus,” Lynch said, referring to the effort that is widely known as “flattening the curve.”
Leibowitz added that all of these administrators are in touch with their colleagues at other institutions to “exchange information daily with them.”
As of Monday’s email, students are now required to leave by Wednesday, a week earlier than the previous move-out deadline of March 25. This new requirement does not apply to students who received a waiver to stay past March 25 or who are waiting to hear back if their waiver application has been approved, and also excludes students who “can demonstrate that they have made firm travel arrangements for a date after March 18 but before March 26,” per Monday’s email. If a student’s housing waiver application is denied, they have until March 25 to leave.
Brandeis will grant waivers to stay “on a case-by-case basis” for international students, students with on-campus jobs, those who cannot access online classes at their homes and students “for whom going home is not an option,” Liebowitz said in his March 11 email.
In his March 15 email, Liebowitz said that over 500 people have applied to stay on campus past the original March 25 move-out date. This number of applicants has made processing requests “very difficult for the Department of Community Living,” and Liebowitz urged students who “do not have a significant health, safety or financial need to remain on campus” to withdraw their applications. Liebowitz encouraged students who need help covering travel costs to apply for a Student Emergency Fund Grant.
By Monday afternoon, the Student Affairs team had reviewed over half of the requests to stay, Ou said in the interview. Students will be notified this coming week if their application was accepted or rejected. In some cases, the University may reach out to students for additional information to clarify their situation.
Ou also noted that some students’ requests to stay are rooted in “extenuating circumstances.” He said that Student Affairs is looking to “help students resolve those extenuating circumstances, so they can actually go home” whenever possible.
“I’ve never seen a community mobilize so quickly to help one another,” Ou said during the interview, adding, “That has been very uplifting for me.” He said that the anxiety of this constantly changing situation is “neutralized somewhat by knowing how wonderful the students are.”
On Monday, University Registrar Mark Hewitt announced that early registration for the fall 2020 semester was delayed until April 20-24, and the Department of Community Living delayed the 2020-2021 housing selection process, which was set to occur on Tuesday.
The University has “not made any decision yet” about the summer and fall academic terms, according to Lynch in the interview. “Hopefully, everything that we’ve been doing here puts us in a place so that we have an opportunity to actually be open in the summer and ... the fall,” she said.
The CDC advises anyone exposed to COVID-19 to self-isolate for 14 days and to contact their doctors and local or state health departments, according to its COVID-19 informational page. To prevent the spread of the virus, people should wash their hands, avoid touching their face and practice social distancing.
—Editor’s Note: This article is accurate regrading the status of how the University is operating as of 11 p.m. on Monday, March 16. The Justice does not guarantee that the University is still operating under the information presented in this article.