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June 16, 2020 – A message for faculty on the Vanderbilt Return to Campus Plan

Posted by on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 in Community Messages.

Dear faculty colleagues,

Over the past three months, we have experienced many changes and transitions across nearly every aspect of campus and faculty life. Despite the challenges of the pandemic and economic downturn, our progress comes from teamwork across the entire university and our most sincere commitment to serve our students, faculty, staff and postdocs in the best possible way. We all are called to find solutions for living in a COVID-19 world, including making sure we address racial injustice now and after the pandemic ends. This is a time when our role as a research university is more urgent and necessary than ever. Our faculty and staff—engaged in teaching, research, scholarship, creative expression, and advocacy and activism—have my utmost gratitude for their extraordinary work.

We have learned much since March about how to mitigate COVID-19 risks while fulfilling our education and research missions, and we are confident about launching the next steps in the Vanderbilt Return to Campus Plan. Later this morning, Incoming Chancellor Diermeier and I will announce to our community Vanderbilt’s plan for the 2020–2021 academic year and our return to in-person classes (announcement available here). Specific details about the undergraduate fall academic calendar are included in today’s announcement. Graduate and professional degree program calendars can be found on the Return to Campus Plan website.

As members of our valued and dedicated faculty, you are among the very first to see this plan in its entirety. I am grateful to all of you who joined yesterday’s Faculty Senate co-hosted town hall, where we discussed much of this information. If you were unable to attend, I invite you to watch a recording of the event.

Our fundamental goal is to protect the health and well-being of each member of our Vanderbilt community as much as possible. This plan results from work conducted by the deans, the associate deans and school/college-specific working groups, as well as multiple faculty/staff ad hoc committees focused on the academic calendar, research operations, campus facilities and buildings, housing, dining and more. Expertise and guidance from Vanderbilt’s Public Health Advisory Task Force, School of Nursing faculty and leaders, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center faculty and leaders, and information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College Health Association and other national organizations, directly inform the health and safety guidelines for our return to campus.

I am grateful for the time, effort and expertise our faculty have brought to this process. For example, faculty in several schools/colleges suggested that in-person classes end at the Thanksgiving holiday, as many universities are planning to do. Likewise, guided by thoughtful comments from many of you, we are working diligently to ensure that new COVID-19-related safeguards are as accessible as possible to meet the needs of our community members with disabilities. Another frequent response was the suggestion to create additional instructional design support; based on this input, I’m pleased to report that we are interviewing candidates for a new assistant director for instructional design at the Center for Teaching and expect to have that person in place soon.

Although the scientific understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve, and we will continue to adjust in response to new information, there is broad consensus that the procedures and protocols we are implementing are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. All are outlined on the Return to Campus Plan website, which I urge you to consult regularly and to read thoroughly. It is the primary source of information about Vanderbilt’s reopening and will continue to be updated.


Developing the academic calendars

We did not rush into decisions about how to restart in-person classes since making the difficult decision in March to move the remainder of Vanderbilt’s spring semester classes to virtual and alternative platforms. The school/college deans and associate deans, along with any committees they engaged, developed the academic calendars we are announcing today. Our objective was to apply all available information, including that from our faculty’s experiences and the requirements of our numerous accreditation bodies, and to be strategic regarding our resources. The key components of the new calendars are no breaks during the semester and the end of in-person classes on November 20, the Friday before Thanksgiving week. Through these changes, we eliminate the uncertainties inherent in travel to and from campus.

Protocols for our faculty’s health, safety and well-being

As discussed in our town halls, your health, safety, well-being, and ability to teach and conduct your scholarship at the highest level are of the utmost importance to me and to all university leaders. With Phase 2 of the Vanderbilt Return to Campus Plan underway, we have increased on-campus opportunities to support your research, scholarship and creative expression safely through careful and deliberate reopening of workspaces, including labs, offices and practice rooms. For specific details and procedures, I refer you to the emails sent by Vice Provost for Research Padma Raghavan on June 5 and June 11. The Heard Library system also continues significantly expanding electronic access to materials and, in Phase 2, increasing the number of pick-up and drop-off locations for faculty to acquire non-digital resources.

With every phase of our Return to Campus Plan, we have put in place four basic public health measures known to slow COVID-19 spread: physical distancingface masks/coveringshand-washing and symptom monitoring. Note especially that wearing face masks/coverings is required in all public indoor and outdoor campus locations. We will provide cloth face masks/coverings to every faculty and staff member on campus. The university also has secured additional supplies of protective gear, such as disposable masks and hand sanitizer, that will be distributed by each school’s/college’s facilities manager.

Since we launched Vanderbilt Phase 1 on May 18, more than 1,700 people have returned to campus as part of the research ramp-up and are successfully putting these measures in place on a daily basis. Going forward, we must all continue to adhere to these vital health and safety protocols. I also want to share some of the further safeguards we are implementing:

Physical distancing of 6 feet will be implemented in classrooms. This will reduce in-person class sizes and/or result in rescheduling to larger spaces. Classrooms will be disinfected daily during routine cleaning. Disinfecting wipes will be provided in classrooms and other spaces. An ad hoc working group is also considering additional classroom hygiene provisions, including options for lecturer alternatives to face masks, such as plexiglass barriers or face shields. Class scheduling will be adjusted to allow for more time for students and faculty to travel from one class to another. When feasible, dedicated entrances and exits will be designated to minimize congestion during class changes.

High-touch areas, including in academic buildings, will be disinfected at least twice per dayRestroom signage will promote physical distancing and protocols, and disinfection methods will be fully deployed. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed at entrance and exit points for buildings on campus, as well as near elevators. Doors will be automated, where possible. The Vanderbilt Facilities Department is also increasing the amount of outside air being delivered to spaces, using high-efficiency filtration in systems that circulate air around large numbers of spaces and monitoring temperature and humidity levels within spaces.

We are partnering closely with the experts in the School of Nursing and at VUMC to deploy best practices related to symptom monitoring, testing, rigorous contact identification and tracking, and quarantining and isolating when necessary. All undergraduate students will be required to complete a pre-arrival COVID-19 test and will be tested upon arrival on campus. All members of the Vanderbilt community are expected to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, and undergraduate, graduate and professional students must conduct symptom monitoring and will be tested if symptomatic.

If faculty, staff or postdocs become symptomatic, they must contact Occupational Health, which will guide them through the screening and testing process. Any student, faculty, staff member or postdoc identified as a contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, defined as having been within 6 feet of that person for 15 or more continuous minutes, will be tested. We are also considering periodic testing of different university sub-populations.

As stated in the community letter, the university has identified spaces and protocols to properly care for any residential students who have been exposed. These measures will allow us to continue on-campus instruction while living within an environment where COVID-19 cannot be completely eliminated. Should an outbreak occur, or public health conditions change significantly, we will rely on our colleagues at the School of Nursing and VUMC, as well as local, state and federal officials and public health guidelines, to help us assess whether we must send some or all students home.

These are just some of the steps that we are taking to ensure a safe-as-possible return to campus; I strongly encourage you to explore the Return to Campus Plan website for full information.

Faculty resources, support and school-specific information

In my May 12 message, I discussed our framework for achieving our goal to have in-person classes on campus this fall. This framework included the continued need for physical distancing, the need to have plans for in-person classes also to be delivered by virtual and alternative teaching methods, and the understanding that curricular decisions will be made on a local level, taking into account the unique standards and expectations across our different schools and colleges.

Today, these components of our plan still ring true. We move forward with different hybrid and blended teaching models that include a combination of in-person, virtual and alternative platforms. This approach is the most flexible, allows for contingency planning, and is informed by our understanding that some members of our community—including faculty and students—will not be able to return to campus because of travel and visa restrictions as well as health concerns and personal circumstances.

Again, decisions and discussions regarding courses that may need to be taught using only virtual and alternative platforms will be made in your colleges and schools. We are committed to providing additional tools for adaptive course design, including investments for expanded classroom information technology, Center for Teaching resources, and access to instructional design experts through iDesign.

I empathize with the fact that it will be a big transition to return to campus and in-person classroom environments and further to develop the hybrid course curriculums. I miss truly “seeing” my colleagues and look forward to appropriate in-person gatherings, but I also know that the new campus protocols will make everything seem very different. I understand that some faculty members may feel concerned about what a return to campus entails. This is a topic we discussed at yesterday’s town hall, and we will continue to invest in new resources to support you on all levels and to protect your health and well-being as much as possible.

Along those lines, one of our priorities at this time is to develop contingency plans related to child care in the fall, should local public schools and child care facilities not reopen fully or be forced to close once again. We have assembled a working group to address these issues.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s town hall and today’s announcement, Incoming Chancellor Diermeier, Vice Chancellor Eric Kopstain and I will host a virtual town hall at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, June 22, to provide another opportunity to discuss the plans for the 2020–2021 academic year. You will receive a separate invitation to that event, and I hope you will join us.

Working toward our future together

As always, our mission is the connecting thread through our actions: We are doing all of this to advance research, discovery and creative expression—and to provide an excellent education to every Vanderbilt student. The well-being of our community is absolutely central to our continued success in pursuit of this mission.

Now, more than ever, our community depends on our One Vanderbilt ethos of collaboration. Whether through your deans, future town halls, the input we are collecting through the University Continuity Working Group or other appropriate means, please let us know your questions and needs as we approach the fall semester.

Thank you for your dedication to our mission, to our students, staff and postdocs, to each other and to the health and safety of our entire community.

Susan R. Wente

Interim Chancellor and Provost, Vanderbilt University