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June 16, 2020 – Our Plan for the Fall Semester

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

Dear Vanderbilt community,

We appreciate your patience while we have developed our return to campus plans. We understand uncertainty about the fall semester may have compounded the stress you have been under during these extremely challenging times, and we know all are eager for information that will allow us to look forward and plan for the future. As we shared in mid-May, many groups have been working diligently on plans to reopen the Vanderbilt campus under conditions that are as safe as possible, and we committed to communicating those plans to you as soon as they were completed. Today, we write to share with you Vanderbilt’s plans for the 2020-2021 academic year.

In close consultation with experts at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and our School of Nursing and with information from national, state and local public health officials, we launched the Vanderbilt Return to Campus Plan on May 18. We successfully completed Phase 1 with the initial ramp-up of our on-campus research activities, and on June 8 began transitioning to Phase 2, with a further expansion of research and graduate and professional student experiential learning. All of our planned phases are grounded in the adoption of rigorous safety and prevention protocols. Based on the effectiveness of these actions, and after studying multiple scenarios and best practices, we determined and are very pleased to announce that we will resume on-campus, in-person classes for the fall semester.

A successful fall semester will require every member of our community to work together in the One Vanderbilt spirit. We recognize the strengths of residential education and want our students, faculty and staff to have the chance to be together on campus under the new conditions that the pandemic requires. To accomplish that goal, this fall:

  • In-person, on-campus undergraduate classes will begin on Monday, August 24, and will conclude on Friday, November 20. All undergraduate students will complete the final week of classes remotely and then also take final exams remotely through virtual and alternative platforms, with the semester concluding on Sunday, December 13.
  • Academic calendars for graduate and professional degree programs will be shared directly with students by their respective deans. Most graduate and professional degree programs will also end in-person classes before Thanksgiving break.
  • There will be no fall break this year. In addition, we ask that students stay in the Nashville area and not travel away from campus for weekend trips through the end of in-person classes on Friday, November 20.
  • Undergraduate residential students who are able to do so will leave campus for the Thanksgiving holiday and will not return to campus until the start of the spring semester. We are adopting this plan based on current public health guidance regarding risks associated with coming and going to and from campus, and models suggesting a potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases with the onset of influenza season.

During this pandemic, the health and safety of our Vanderbilt community is uppermost in our minds. We are leveraging the learning, data and experience we have acquired since the pandemic began in January to inform our plans and reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread as much as possible. We will continue to closely track the course of the pandemic and will adjust these plans as necessary in response to the latest public health information.

Classes and course work

All undergraduate students are invited to return to campus for in-person studies in the fall. We will, however, provide a robust educational experience for all of our students, whether they return to campus or not; the Office of the University Registrar will contact undergraduate students on June 16 with details on how students can apply for remote-only studies, if needed because of their personal circumstances. We ask all undergraduates who choose to apply for this option to communicate with us by June 26.

The University Registrar will also reach out to all undergraduate students by mid-July regarding any specific scheduling or course-related changes; information for graduate and professional students will be communicated by their deans’ offices.

Although we are returning to on-campus, in-person instruction, classes will look and operate differently from the way they have in the past. For example:

  • We intend to practice physical distancing and other protocols to promote health and safety in classrooms. Students will sit farther apart and will wear face masks/coverings. Faculty and teaching assistants also will adopt appropriate public health safety methods.
  • A student’s individual course schedule may include some evening and weekend classes, a blend of virtual and alternative and in-person learning, and other approaches.
  • We are planning for in-person courses to have options for delivery via a variety of virtual and alternative platforms. This will provide for students who cannot return to campus activities and for those who need to self-isolate or quarantine during the semester. We are investing in new resources to further advance these platforms and will offer an excellent learning experience for all.

Undergraduate residential housing

We know many of you have questions regarding undergraduate housing for the fall semester. Our plan for Vanderbilt-controlled housing this year is student-focused. Given COVID-19 conditions, this means we will de-densify residential spaces to provide housing that is as safe as possible, and we will identify self-isolation and quarantine locations for our residential community.

To meet these goals, we have customized plans for three cohorts of students with different needs: first-year students, returning upper-division students and student-athletes. We are deploying a mix of new approaches, including authorizing more upper-division students to live off campus and securing additional Vanderbilt-controlled housing options in the area. Details about these plans are available on the Return to Campus website.

To reduce population density in our dining halls, we will expand opportunities for mobile ordering through Campus Dining and are creating more opportunities for grab-and-go options. We also are modifying circulation and adding contactless “tap” checkouts to promote health and safety in dining halls.

Regardless of where our students reside—in Vanderbilt-controlled housing, off campus, or in remote locations—we are committed to providing programming and support that enhance connections, belonging and community. Campus Life, Student Life and Campus Dining will implement new protocols regarding events, meetings, informal gatherings and access to common areas. Offices across campus also are connecting with student groups to develop new strategies for creative socializing and virtual programming.

Protecting our community as much as possible

As we look forward, every one of us will need to fully commit to protecting our collective health and well-being as much as possible and play our individual part in managing the spread of the virus. At the core of our efforts is prevention of infection. Public health protocols, including symptom monitoring and temperature checks, mandatory face masks/coverings, public hand-sanitizer stations and physical distancing, will be in place. We will ask all students who return to campus to sign an acknowledgment of such protocols.

The university is also taking actions, such as enhanced cleaning protocols, changes to foot-traffic flow through buildings and on campus pathways, and much more, to ensure all campus spaces and buildings support the health and safety of our students, staff and faculty. Details are available on our Return to Campus website.

And as a core component of our preventive measures, we will have requirements for COVID-19 testing, as well as rigorous contact tracing and symptom management. We are partnering with experts at VUMC and our School of Nursing to deploy best practices in these areas. More information about our plans, as well as testing requirements for different groups of students—which may include testing before arriving on campus, upon return to campus, or during students’ time on campus—will be shared on the Return to Campus website by July 15.

We are committed to ensuring all students can be cared for if they are ill or need to quarantine. 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 VUMC, as well as local, state and federal officials and public health guidelines, to help us assess if we must send some or all students home. We know some members of our community are likely to test positive this fall, but we are establishing rigorous systems to manage this reality, care for our students and protect our community.

In addition, we are enhancing support for our students’ health and well-being through a new collaboration among the Nurse Faculty Practice Division in the School of Nursing, VUMC and the Student Health Center. The School of Nursing will perform contact tracing for positive cases, provide counseling for any students who are in quarantine and isolation, and provide periodic symptom monitoring for all students. We also will provide new telehealth options, additional programming and more through the Student Care Network, a holistic network of mental health resources and wellness services available to all Vanderbilt students.

Shared accountability and working together

There is no denying that the ways in which we live, learn, interact, study and discover will continue to evolve and change in the coming months. These experiences will be new for all of us. We share in the feeling that there is a long road of uncertainty ahead; however, we firmly believe that our collaborative, innovative and caring Vanderbilt culture positions us well to travel that road successfully and thoughtfully together.

We will hold virtual town halls for students and families on Wednesday, June 17, at 7 p.m. CDT, and on Saturday, June 20, at 10 a.m. CDT, when we will discuss this plan and answer your questions on a range of topics. You will receive a separate invitation to register for these events, and we look forward to talking with you then. A recording will be available if you are not able to attend one of the live sessions.

In addition, we have expanded our new and returning student helpline, and we encourage students and parents to contact us with questions at 615-322-4357.

And, we encourage you to visit the Return to Campus website for details and updates.

This is a pivotal moment, and we have a unique opportunity to shape it—as part of a leading research university and as exemplary members of our broader community. As the university’s leaders, during these unusual times, we are committed to the primary goal of fostering a community that welcomes all and provides the transformative learning and discovery opportunities that our students expect from Vanderbilt University.


Daniel Diermeier
Incoming Chancellor, Vanderbilt University

Susan R. Wente

Interim Chancellor and Provost, Vanderbilt University