As the fall semester and the COVID-19 pandemic progress, the question of how spring semester will play out is on everyone’s minds. On Oct. 26, University President Ron Liebowitz, along with other members of the administration, hosted a virtual check-in for students and their families to answer questions about pandemic guidelines and plans for the upcoming spring semester.

Liebowitz began by explaining that the University will continue to follow Massachusetts state guidelines and maintain or adjust Brandeis' current protocols as needed. He predicted that with the recent increase in cases in the area, there may be new and stricter testing requirements in the coming months. 

“We’ve been very fortunate thus far, with a total of 20 or 21 positive cases [at the University] since Aug. 1, which is remarkable,” Liebowitz noted, “but we will loosen or make more strict those guidelines depending upon what the situation is.” Provost Lisa Lynch added, “Obviously there are still a lot of uncertainties. … We don’t know what the profile of the virus transmission is going to be in the coming months.” She expressed optimism, however, about the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine and new treatments, as well as gratitude that students have been wearing face masks and washing their hands.

The start of the spring semester has been delayed until Feb. 1. This decision has been made to limit exposure from travel and to hopefully allow more time for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine before students’ return to campus, Lynch explained. This will also ensure that students are off campus during some of the coldest weather, which is important as the virus is more likely to spread when people congregate indoors with poor ventilation. 

Due to the delay, there will not be the normal spring breaks. Instead there will be four days without classes during the semester –– Presidents’ Day, the Monday at the start of Passover, Good Friday and an additional day in March. “We're basically replicating what we've done in the fall semester,” Lynch said. “The goal is to create our sort of social bubble on the Brandeis campus and not have people traveling away from campus and then coming back onto the campus and potentially acting as a vector for COVID.”

Lynch and Raymond Ou, the vice president of Student Affairs, discussed important upcoming dates for housing and course selection for the next semester. Ou said winter break housing applications and mid-year student housing applications were due Oct. 28 and Oct. 30, respectively, and housing applications for students currently living off campus who are planning to return are due Nov. 6. The full course offerings for spring will be posted by Dec. 1, Lynch said, and registration will be open from Dec. 16 through Feb. 12. Spring semester course offerings will continue to have options for remote, hybrid or in-person learning, so students can still take classes either at home or on campus.

Ou also clarified that students currently living on campus and returning for the spring do not have to move out their belongings for winter break, but students who are not returning to campus in the spring must do so. Stew Uretsky, the executive vice president for Finance and Administration, added that he is working with the Student Union to try to subsidize transportation costs for students returning home over Thanksgiving break, since the University normally offers a shuttle service. For the spring semester, students will be able to return to campus housing as early as Jan. 25, and those moving in will likely be required to sign up for a time slot to do so. 

Due to the unusual school year, Ou and Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the chief diversity officer and the vice president for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, highlighted the support options available to students. “It is challenging for students. I think we need to acknowledge that,” Ou said. He mentioned that the offices of Academic Services and Student Affairs, the Brandeis Counseling Center, the Hillel chaplaincy, the Intercultural Center and the Gender and Sexuality Center are valuable resources for students and families. “Spaces that provide support are open and available, and our staff are eager and excited about making sure they make student connections,” Brimhall-Vargas said.

Through the BCC, the University is working to provide access to clinical counseling to students living off campus as well. Ou explained that the BCC counselors are licensed in Massachusetts, but with a reciprocal agreement, they can practice teletherapy across state lines. For states without this agreement, counselors can still help by providing consultations so students can find local counseling options.

For additional support, Ou is also working with coaches to organize athletic activities throughout the winter, particularly since varsity sports remain canceled, and Brimhall-Vargas mentioned that student organizations have been adapting well to connecting virtually. “There will definitely be opportunities for students to connect with each other [and] connect with staff and faculty. We do want to make sure students have the rich Brandeis experience that they've come to expect,” Brimhall-Vargas said.

Community Advisors are another potential support system, but it is important to recognize that they are students too, explained Ou. The offices of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs will be working to build a wider support network beyond the CAs and also organize more events, Ou said. Many events will be held both in-person and virtually so that all students can stay connected.

Looking at the academic side of students' experiences, Lynch explained that faculty have been informed that they should “be flexible,” as students will likely require lighter work loads and more support during remote learning this year. She also shared the results of a survey about fall semester, in which students shared what they feel is working well and what needs improvement. “By and large, the students are really grateful for the faculty members, the effort that they're putting into making the classes work in this mode, which is not our preferred mode for teaching our classes,” she said. Having said this, Lynch also noted that “Zoom fatigue hits everyone.” It is important for professors to give students breaks during class, scale down work loads and recognize that students have differing remote learning experiences, she explained.

Students also have access to different resources for academic support, Lynch said. These include Academic Advising, Roosevelt Fellows, Student Support Services and Brandeis Undergraduate Group Study tutoring, as well as faculty members.

Uretsky briefly touched on the University’s finances, emphasizing the administration’s “principles of transparency … flexib[ilibty] and resiliency.” On June 30, the end of the 2020 fiscal year, the University lost about $22 million in revenue, and the administration is predicting a loss of $35 million this year. The total University budget is about $360 million. However, the administration has taken precautionary steps to avoid losing too much revenue. Measures include “a freeze of our salary increases, reductions in senior management salaries, reductions in operating expenses, a suspension of the match on our retirement health plan for this year [and] a freeze on hiring,” he said. Uretsky added that undergraduate enrollment is only a little less than usual –– just under 3,600, while enrollment for 2017 was 4,011 –– but revenue from the graduate students' enrollment is down 20% to 40%, and revenue from fundraising is also down 20%. There are also significantly fewer students living on campus this semester –– only about 1,800 compared to the usual 2,800.

Uretsky said that the high-frequency COVID-19 testing program and improved technology in classrooms are “the most important investments that [Brandeis has] made” recently.

Pivoting to discuss the upcoming presidential election, Lynch said that the Brandeis community has been engaged around the importance of voting through the “Why I Vote” video campaign, a discussion with Anita Hill and more programming and discussions that are scheduled for before and after the election itself.

Looking forward to graduation, the current plan is to hold Commencements on campus for both the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020, who missed their Commencement this past spring –– although, the Class of 2020 did have small virtual ceremonies to recognize the graduates of each department. However, a definite decision will be made later depending on the state of the pandemic, Liebowitz said. 

Ou also highlighted the University’s efforts to help graduating students find jobs during the pandemic by connecting them with alumni. He also recently met with the Hiatt Career Center leadership team, Brimhall-Vargas and students involved in organizing the Black Action Plan to clarify Hiatt staff members' bios to ensure students know who best to contact for their particular needs. “It’s never too early to engage with Hiatt,” Brimhall-Vargas said, suggesting that students connect with the career center as early as in their first year. Lynch suggested that students connect with alumni if interested in pursuing an internship over the long winter break or connect with faculty to work on an independent research project.