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With Optimism, But Also Contingency Plans, Officials Discuss Start of Spring Semester

After a successful semester in which COVID-19 infections were kept low on campus because of a comprehensive community health program, university officials laid out plans Thursday for a spring semester that will look much the same as it did in the fall.

Students begin leaving campus next week and heading into a country facing a wave of infections. Duke officials have developed contingency plans if it is not possible to bring students back to campus to start classes on Jan. 20.

“The factors we were concerned about in the fall are still with us, but we’ve been able to control them,” said Jennifer Francis, executive vice provost, who along with Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh chair Team 2021 that addresses campus issues during the pandemic. Francis, Cavanaugh and other Duke officials addressed the plans for the spring semester Thursday during a virtual meeting of the Academic Council.

Other universities praised Duke’s efforts this fall as a model for college campuses. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted a study of Duke’s surveillance testing plan that indicated that university’s efforts kept student infections rates significantly below that of the local community.

But Francis added that this spring several new factors will add to the challenges for Duke and any university.

The largest concern is that the combination of rising infection rates in much of the country, looser restrictions on business openings and social gatherings and colder winter weather driving people indoors means Duke community members are at higher risk for infection over the two-month semester break.

“We are likely to see to see a higher rate of positive baseline tests when the students return to campus in January and receive gateway testing,” Francis said. In addition, “People are tired, but all the advances in good practices and behavior that were so important during the fall semester will have to be reinforced in the spring.”

The return to campus in January will follow much the same pattern as in the fall. Graduate and professional students are scheduled to return Jan. 9, while undergraduates will return Jan. 15. Duke will require all students to have immediate COVID testing upon arrival on campus.

Spring classes will include a similar combination of in-person and remote learning as in the fall, with some hybrid courses, Francis said. About 20 percent of undergraduate classes will be taught in-person, she said, a slight increase from the fall. 

All faculty teaching in-person classes will get regular access to COVID testing. However, one lesson from the fall semester is that in-class transmission was not an issue. There wasn’t a single confirmed case of in-class transmission during the semester.

Francis outlined the contingency plans if rising numbers of national infections require university officials to change the current schedule for student return.

  • If baseline tests show concerning positive rates, all students will be sequestered in on-campus rooms or off-campus apartments, and all classes will start remotely for the first three days of the semester.
  • If the baseline tests are significantly worse than expected, again students will be sequestered and classes will start remotely for the first 10-14 days of the semester.
  • If infection rates in North Carolina and elsewhere in the United States are so high that it’s impossible to allow students to return to Durham as planned, all classes will start remotely and students will be brought to campus only when health risks and travel restrictions permit.

The semester will start with high hopes for a COVID vaccine, but Cavanaugh said campus planners are not counting on any vaccine to reach the campus community soon. “We are not anticipating there will be sufficient levels of vaccine to reach faculty and students in the spring semester,” he said. “We are hopeful for the summer or fall.”

Cavanaugh added that Duke officials are working on vaccine distribution plans with state and local leaders. Priority will be for front-line health care workers. (Read more about vaccine distribution plans in this statement.)

In other discussion before the Academic Council, President Vincent Price and Vice Presidents Kim Hewitt and Abbas Benmamoun updated faculty on anti-racism efforts.  One takeaway was the inspiring amount of grassroots work being done by individual units across the campus.

Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity, noted that an Office of Institutional Equity breakfast panel last week featured different anti-racism programs developed by employees in the Office of Institutional Technology, Alumni Affairs and Duke Arts.

“We’re finding out there is a lot of interest in hearing what people are doing to inspire others in anti-racism efforts,” she said. “We want to find ways to inform and support this grassroots effort.”

The leaders also outlined challenges in the efforts: Communications to let people know about the work; coordination of the different efforts across the campus; gathering data to measure and assess key metrics; and using that data to hold units and their leaders accountable.

Academic Council Chair Kerry Haynie and other university leaders ended the meeting with a tribute to retiring Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III, who was attending his 200th and final council session.

Trask served as executive vice president for 25 years, making him the longest-serving chief financial officer in university history. Haynie praised Trask as a leader who made decisions that were based on supporting “the core missions of the university.”

Others cited his collaboration with university faculty. “I always found that if a faculty member willing to dig in and learn about the finances of university you were willing to help them,” said Don Taylor, former council chair and current director of the Social Science Research Institute.