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June 4: Message from the President — Safe Return to Campus

June 4, 2020

Dear Patriot,

Through the years, George Mason University has served as a gateway to hope and promise for so many students. This academic year tested us in ways never imagined, and yet our response culminated last month with the largest graduating class in Mason history. That’s a testament to our community, and the reason students are eager to come back each year.

Now we begin the next big challenge: laying the foundation for a Safe Return to Campus. Our plan calls for starting the fall semester on time and bringing students back for a mix of in-person instruction and expanded online classes, as well as the continuation of research. This hybrid approach will allow for appropriate social distancing on campus, while making alternatives available for those students who are not ready to return.    

Our guiding principle throughout this process is our commitment to offering the best educational experience for our students while making the safety, health and well-being of our entire community a priority.  We must meet our core mission of providing a rich and rewarding education that positions our students for success. Re-opening the campus, under proper conditions and with safety modifications, is an essential element of the Mason experience. We know that many students benefit from being on campus, interacting in the classroom, and having an opportunity to engage in person with faculty and fellow students.  We are also proud of our online offerings and understand that online courses may be the best fit for some students. But for many, there is real value in the opportunity to connect within the vigorous living and learning community we treasure so much at Mason. 

While not all risk can be eliminated, the evidence tells us that with appropriate precautions it can be greatly reduced. That premise underlies our approach. The effort to reopen our campus has drawn on a wealth of talent and experience across our university and beyond – and particularly the best scientific evidence and advice available from public health experts.  It began with the work of our Patriot Tiger Team, which started the conversation with our campus community in early May and provided options for us to build on. We also benefited from feedback about the Fall semester from our community through surveys, dialogue sessions and virtual town hall meetings, and we will continue to do so. 

I have personally consulted extensively with students, faculty and staff and know that many of you have concerns, particularly around members of our community who are most vulnerable to this virus.  Based on this input, we have developed a blueprint to reduce risk and enhance safety as we move toward our fall reopening. We now have 18 working groups who are developing and implementing the detailed plans, standards and policies that will guide us going forward, under the leadership of our Emergency Management Executive Committee.

Our Safe Return to Campus plan assumes that Governor Northam and public health officials will have determined by early August that general conditions in Northern Virginia will allow for a safe return, pursuant to the Governor’s phased approach to reopening Virginia’s economy.  This will of course depend on the progress of the disease in our area, current scientific evidence and the advice of health professionals – as well as the ongoing expansion of local capacity to manage the public health response and the public’s adherence to health and safety precautions.  We are working closely with state officials and will comply with all guidance and directives for higher education.  We are also working closely with local public health officials, pursuant to guidance from the Virginia Department of Health, to coordinate our efforts. Part of our goal will be to rally our university community to understand and follow state and local directives to contain the disease.

Based on our teams’ work and what we know now, we believe conditions will allow us to start classes as scheduled on August 24. We are evaluating whether to complete the semester as scheduled, or end in-person classes before Thanksgiving and hold final exams online. We are aware the outlook can change, and if it does, we will remain nimble and adjust as needed.  Our incredible faculty and staff are working hard to ensure we have the capacity to offer high-quality online instruction, including the ability to revert to a fully remote option if and when needed.

Even as we proceed as planned, campus life won’t be exactly how we remember. Flexibility remains crucial in this period of uncertainty. But I am confident in our collective capacity to serve the needs of our community and provide students a rich and rewarding educational experience.

Here are a few details around our thinking:

A balanced approach to instruction that gives us flexibility

Instruction has always been the center of the Mason experience, and that hasn’t changed during this crisis. In this new environment, the priority for in-person instruction will be courses that most benefit from face-to-face interactions including laboratory sections and classes that engage experiential learning in a wide variety of subjects. Larger classes and lectures will be online.  For other courses, the university will consider a number of factors, including classroom size, space availability and faculty member availability for teaching in-person.

Regardless of whether classes are taught in person, online or a hybrid of the two, we plan to increase instructional support and resources for faculty and students.

Reducing occupancy in residence halls and adding new measures to reduce risk

Our plan for on-campus housing seeks to reduce risk in the residence halls. This includes reducing occupancy to allow for increased physical distancing. We are adding extra cleaning precautions and establishing community guidelines that limit the number of students who can gather together in common areas. We are also setting aside adequate space for residential students who need to isolate should they become sick because of COVID-19 and those who need to quarantine because of exposure to those with the virus. 

Creating a new culture on campus

Our commitment to safety starts with everyone respecting physical distancing norms. The university will reduce the number of students in classrooms to increase the amount of space for physical distancing. Where appropriate, we will also give guidance for physical distancing around campus. 

Face coverings will be required for everyone in all public areas – including classrooms. While there is so much unknown about this virus, research shows that wearing a face covering greatly reduces the spread and therefore is a must for our community. The university will provide two free reusable cloth masks to all students, faculty and staff.

Classrooms and other public spaces will be modified in certain cases. We will have hand sanitizing stations readily available and institute enhanced cleaning of public spaces across campus. 

Coordinating public health protocols

The university will coordinate with local public health officials to ensure plans are in place for testing, contact tracing, and responding to potential outbreaks on campus. Individuals who have had close contact with persons infected with COVID-19 will be required to quarantine, and those who are suspected or have confirmed positive cases must isolate. Other monitoring measures will be instituted as appropriate, with a particular emphasis on detecting and responding to a potential outbreak in the residence halls.

We will also ask students, faculty and staff to be vigilant about symptoms that signal sickness, including requiring regular health self-assessments. Everyone will be expected to stay home if they are sick, and to cooperate with public health directives.

Protecting our most vulnerable populations is a priority

We know that certain segments of our community are at greater risk because of their age or health status, and we are taking steps to address their concerns.

Faculty who are at high risk due to age or medical vulnerability will be given the option not to teach in-person courses in the fall. Telework will be encouraged for staff who do not need to be on campus.  Students with special vulnerabilities will be provided options to continue their education remotely or to return to campus with additional protections if feasible.

None of this happens without everyone’s commitment

For the university to reopen campuses, we must be vigilant and adapt to the new reality. This includes adding new training for students and employees. Everyone will be asked to signal their commitment to these new policies for the health and well-being of the broader community. Our intention is to create a safe environment for learning and research and to make adjustments where necessary. Everyone’s patience and flexibility will be necessary and appreciated.

We are ready to pivot, if things change

Finally, the university is prepared to pivot back to fully remote operations, if that step becomes necessary to protect the safety of the community. Such a pivot could be triggered at any point prior to the start of the semester or during the semester, either by government directive or Mason’s own assessment.

Our planning is taking place in real time, with the best information we have at the moment. We continue to consult public health officials and will rely on their expertise throughout this process. This remains a very dynamic situation, which is why we believe this hybrid approach is the best way to serve our mission and prioritize safety at the same time.  

We know that many of you will have questions and concerns about the university’s plans for the fall. We will be holding a town hall later this month to address questions and will provide details in a subsequent message next week. The Mason community is encouraged to submit questions or comments here. We will also be updating the university’s main website with more details about the Safe Return to Campus in the coming weeks.

These are challenging times. But we will get through them together. And we will be a stronger Mason Nation when this is over.

Sincerely,

Anne Holton

Interim President