Update from President Holton on the Safe Return to Campus

Dear Patriots,

This has been an extraordinary time for all of us, and I remain so proud of George Mason University community’s response.

I hope you were able to attend Wednesday’s town hall meeting. I’m pleased to say that more than 3,000 people tuned in to watch, and we received more than 500 questions for the event. More than 50 percent of those were from students and about 30 percent were from faculty and staff. The leadership team answered many of your questions, and we plan to address those we didn’t through upcoming communication with you and on the Safe Return to Campus website. If you missed the meeting or would like to see it again, you can see the video recording here.

We miss you. Mason isn’t the same place without our students, faculty, staff and researchers. The good news is that we continue to plan to start the fall semester on time on Aug. 24 with a hybrid of in person and online classes. That successful start depends on our region’s continued success in fighting the virus, and we are working closely with public health officials to monitor conditions and help ensure we do our part to support their work.  It also depends on us committing as a community to four key things. We must wear our masks; I wear a mask to care for you, and you wear a mask care for me.  We have to stay six feet apart from each other. We have to wash our hands, and we have to stay home if we are sick. If we can put protocols in place that support those key pieces, we are convinced that we can significantly reduce the risk and rejoin our campus community together. It will be different but also rewarding. Together, we can make this work.

A few updates that are worth noting:

Class schedule anticipated to be available by July 17

As Provost Mark Ginsberg said Wednesday, class scheduling is complex jigsaw puzzle. By July 17, we hope to have the class schedule available so that students know the time and format of their classes for the fall semester. We plan to offer many classes in both face-to-face and online formats, with preference for in-person instruction given to labs, hands-on classes and experiential learning. This has required tremendous cooperation and hard work by the provost’s office, the deans, the Faculty, and facilities management among others, and I know you appreciate their work as much as I do. Some students may receive specific information from their individual school or college prior to July 17, but that’s our goal to complete the puzzle.

Housing

We had a lot of questions about housing at the town hall. We are keeping our on-campus student occupancy rate around 75 percent, intentionally keeping about 1,500 beds empty to facilitate physical distancing and in case we need space for students to quarantine.  Most of the occupancy is single rooms along with some doubles but with no more than two people in a room.

Any new students or first-year students who met the June 1 priority registration deadline are guaranteed a housing assignment.  All returning students who selected an on-campus housing assignment in March are also guaranteed an assignment. We do have an established waitlist and any student on the waitlist as of June 20 is receiving an assignment. We will continue to work with all others as spaces become available. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, move-in will look different this fall, starting on Aug. 15 and occurring over a week-long period instead of the more typical two days.

Financial aid for students

Some parts of the country are reopening and the economy is rebounding but in other places this is a longer and more drawn out process. We know the economic crisis affects a great number of our students and their families. Mason is distributing over $10 millionin federal CARES act relief funds to students, with about half already out the door and the rest being issued this summer and early fall. We also continue to accept applications for the Student Emergency Assistance Fund. This is particularly important to our undocumented students who do not currently qualify for CARES Act relief. Our Foundation and Advancement teams have been instrumental in working to help this important part of our student population.

Athletics

Our student-athletes are eager to return to practice, and I know I speak for many fans when I say I’m looking forward to seeing them return as well. Selected sports will be able to begin voluntary workouts on July 13, with numerous health and safety protocols. This includes a 14-day self-quarantine period before returning to campus, appropriate testing, daily health assessments, COVID 19 training, and other factors to ensure health and safety of students, trainers and coaches. Stay tuned for more information from our athletics department in early July.

Commencement

This came up at the town hall and I know it’s an important question for many. The university’s virtual recognition ceremony was well-received, but we know it’s not a substitute for an in-person event. We will celebrate the Class of 2020, but at this time we can’t provide a specific date. We are committed to bringing you together to celebrate when it is safe to do so. As vaccines and treatments are developed, as contact tracing increases, we will be able to get a better idea. I promise I will be there to applaud your efforts when we can gather safely to celebrate.

Travel

As a follow up to previous messages, we are announcing that Mason has suspended all international travel through the end of the fall semester, with the exception of travel to South Korea. Exceptions will be considered on a case-by-case by the University Travel Advisory Committee (risk@gmu.edu).

More about Phase 3

Gov. Northam has announced that Virginia will move into Phase 3 on Wednesday, July 1. Most employees will not be returning to campus in July and many employees will continue to telework through the summer and possibly through the fall semester. Please reach out to your manager or supervisor to talk about your work situation. Our Human Resources and Employee Relations teams are available to help you work through individual specific situations. We know many of our employees have children in the K-12 schools and those schedules and decisions will affect their work schedules, and we encourage everyone to remain flexible as we move into fall.

A word of gratitude
As I return to the faculty and begin preparing for my fall teaching, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your many kindnesses and help during my tenure as Interim President, and for honoring our Mason value “we thrive together” in this moment. The tough situations we are now facing can indeed make us stronger, if we can stay flexible, be patient and open with each other, and stay focused on meeting the needs of all. I want to thank especially my leadership team for their incredible work and friendship, and President-Designee Washington for his invaluable engagement over the last few months. I have total confidence that you will extend him your full support as he begins his tenure July 1, and that together you and he will lead this university forward to its next great chapter.

Remember to hold each other in the light.

Sincerely,

Anne Holton, Interim President

 

Safe Return to Campus website is live

Dear Patriots:

As George Mason University prepares to bring students back to campus this fall, we want to make sure everyone in our community has access to the most current information. Today, we are announcing the Safe Return to Campus Plan website, which will be updated frequently as new information becomes available.

We encourage you to bookmark this site and use it as a reference when you have questions. The site includes the university’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the university preparedness guide, announcements, and other information designed to support the health, safety, and well-being of the Mason community as the university fulfills its academic mission. The second phase of information will be posted to the website in early July.

As previously stated, 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.

Some essential faculty and staff are returning to work this month, although most faculty and staff will continue to work from home. All faculty and staff who return to Mason campuses must first complete the Safe Return to Campus Training, accessible on the Safe Return to Campus website. The stages outlined on the website reflect our preparation for an Aug. 24 start to the semester.

We know that students and their families, faculty and staff, and community members have many questions about the university’s plans for the fall semester, which include a combination of in-person and online instruction and other adaptations.

To address questions, Interim President Anne Holton and senior leadership will conduct a virtual town hall from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 24, livestreamed on GMU-TV. Questions and comments can be pre-submitted here.

Sincerely,

Paul G. Allvin
Vice President of Strategic Communications and Marketing

President Holton to host virtual town hall June 24

Dear Patriots,

As President Holton noted in her message last week, George Mason University will reopen on time on Aug. 24 with a mix of in-person and online classes.

We know there are many questions about our Safe Return to Campus and the university’s overall operations. We invite students, their families, faculty, staff and community members to submit questions here ahead of the town hall that President Holton will host with senior leadership from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 24.

The town hall will be livestreamed on GMU TV and a link also will be available directly from the university’s homepage.

This is new territory for all of us, and your flexibility, compassion and creativity will be essential as we move forward together. We look forward to gathering with you virtually on Wednesday.

Sincerely,

Paul G. Allvin
Vice President of Strategic Communications and Marketing

NOVA in Phase Two; Town Hall Meeting; Additional Information for Faculty and Staff

Dear Patriots,

Phase Two

This week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the Safer at Home order has been lifted and that Northern Virginia is entering Phase 2 of the state’s reopening today, Friday, June 12. He has also issued guidance for the re-opening of higher education campuses this fall.

Many of you may be wondering how these announcements affect George Mason University.  For most of our community, there will be little immediate change from the last few months.  Courses will stay online this summer, and the majority of our faculty and staff will continue to telework in June and July. As we all adjust to the new guidance, I encourage everyone to follow the Governor’s directives and the advice of public health professionals. Wear masks, stay six feet apart, wash your hands, and stay home if you are sick.  The evidence is strong that following these basic rules will greatly reduce the risk of additional infections as our communities reopen.

We appreciate the Governor’s encouragement to re-open our campuses when safe to do so and guidance on how best to do so. Our plans for fall are closely aligned with that guidance.  We will submit our Safe Return to Campus plan to SCHEV by July 6 as directed and look forward to working with state and local officials in the coming months to implement our plans.  Some faculty and staff will gradually begin coming back to campus over the summer, to help prepare the university for our students in the fall, as I outlined last week, and to re-commence research efforts where feasible. Additional guidance for those individuals is included below.

Town Hall Meeting

We know many of you have questions and feedback about our plans to reopen the campus and other aspects of how the coronavirus is impacting the university. I will host a town hall meeting from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on June 24 with university leaders so we can offer clear answers to those questions. If you have questions or comments, please submit them here. The town hall will be livestreamed on GMU TV.

Additional Information for Faculty and Staff

Some researchers, people in operational roles that are directly involved with campus reopening, and other essential personnel may begin to return to our campuses in upcoming weeks. Planning for who will return to campus, and when, will be an ongoing process.

For those who are returning to campus and those who are managing people who will return to campus, the university will have new procedures to ensure a safe return.

A Unit/Department Safety Planning tool will be available to help units and departments determine who should return to campus and when, what workspace or work schedule modifications may be needed, and a process to request safety supplies. This tool will be shared directly with senior leaders across the university, who will be asked to develop plans for their departments.

These supervisors will appoint individuals to complete these Unit/Department Safety Plans for their divisions or functions. If you have not been assigned to complete this plan for your division, please await instructions from your supervisor or department head.

Training for Those Returning to Campus

Anybody coming back to campus will need to complete the Safe Return to Campus Training. This training, with separate employee and student components, will provide important information about COVID-19 illness and transmission, the precautions Mason is implementing to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the campus community, and specific faculty, staff and student responsibilities to protect yourself and others while on campus. It is designed to help educate all the members of our community on our new culture.

This training will be shared first with the essential personnel returning to campus this summer, and then with all members of the Mason community.

The campus environment we return to will be much different from the one we left in March. Our Safe Return to Campus requires everyone’s cooperation. Our success depends on everyone adhering to these new guidelines.

Every one of us has a role to play in helping to safely reopen the university. Please accept my heartfelt appreciation for your commitment to the health and safety of the Mason community.

Sincerely,

Anne Holton
Interim President

Message from Housing and Residence Life

Dear Patriot,

Earlier today President Holton shared Mason’s plans to return to on-campus operations for the fall semester.  Please know that students with a current assignment and/or first-year prospective students and transfers who have a deposit submitted by June 1st will have a housing assignment this fall.  Needless to say, we are going to have a lot of questions around this and we want to answer them with full clarity.  However, please be patient as we work with these parameters that will include taking physical distancing measures, new community standards for living in residence, and additional guidelines for moving in, dining on campus, and more into consideration.

Our hope is to communicate out and have answers by the end of next week (June 12th).  We will send this information directly to students via their Mason e-mail and will post additional information to our various social media accounts.  Additionally, updates are often sent out via the Mason Family Flash newsletter and through the Mason Family Association.

We look forward to having nearly 4,500 students return to university housing in the fall and we will be in touch soon.  In the meantime, please contact housing@gmu.edu if you have immediate questions before then.

Housing and Residence Life

Safe Return to Campus

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.

By reducing occupancy in residence halls and adding new measures, we can 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.

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