Dear Fellow Patriots:
We are fewer than two weeks from the start of the Fall semester and soon will be welcoming many of our faculty, staff and students back to George Mason University’s campuses. We do so with a mix of excitement that accompanies every fall return to campus – and trepidation, because this is 2020 and the pandemic has changed just about everything.
My leadership team and I have been watching the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 virus in northern Virginia, and have determined that it is best to stay the course with our modified re-opening of campus, with continuing flexibility for faculty with respect to the format of their classes. Faculty members who will be delivering their curriculum in person or via hybrid experiences should continue to use the Safe Return to Campus Plan to guide their efforts.
Tracking pandemic conditions
While most public discussion centers on COVID-19 cases nationally and statewide, we are closely monitoring Northern Virginia pandemic conditions, because they give us a more accurate understanding of what is occurring in the communities in which we live and serve. Specifically, our decisions are driven by data from Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties.
One data point we track particularly closely is the Positivity Rate, the percentage of those receiving COVID-19 tests who test positive for the virus. Virginia’s seven-day rolling average as of Monday afternoon was 7.4 percent, while Fairfax County’s was 5.1 percent and dropping, and Arlington County’s was 4.2 percent.
Changing of conditions, change of plans
Unfortunately, Prince William County’s rates have headed in the other direction, and stood at 9.0 percent on Monday. And that trend has troubled us, particularly because we operate the Science and Technology Campus there, and many who work at Mason live in Prince William County. Therefore, we have made two decisions that affect classes this fall:
- We will continue to provide faculty at all Mason campuses flexibility to offer their classes through face-to face, hybrid or fully online formats. By applying the public health and safety best practices set forth in our Safe Return to Campus Plan, we have confidence to deliver our academic programs as had been planned and given evolving circumstances. However, if individual faculty member circumstances have changed, and individuals want to request a change in their course format, they should immediately be in contact with their academic program chair/director and dean.
- We will move to all-online instruction on November 30, following the Thanksgiving holiday. We have decided to do this upon recommendation of our Emergency Management Executive Committee and public health advisors, in order to minimize the risk of transmitting both COVID-19 and influenza, both of which are expected to begin seasonal surges around then.
Why not just keep campuses closed and go all online?
This is a very reasonable question, and one I am asked often, especially because many other universities have opted for online-only instruction, though no public university in Virginia is requiring all online instruction.
The reality is, there are no good solutions to carrying out our academic mission in light of the pandemic. Every solution carries a host of negative side effects that threaten people’s ability to stay healthy and safe, and to remain affiliated with Mason.
Quality of instruction – For many classes, online instruction is just as effective as in-person teaching; in fact, we are seeing excellence in online instruction that we could not have predicted pre-pandemic. But that is not universally true, for environments like laboratory learning, or for disciplines like the performing arts. Of course, we will adapt as necessary, but driving all courses to online environments is an option we will avoid until it is necessary.
Inclusion of international students – By going fully online, we could exclude international students from coming to our campus, because the federal government is refusing to process student visas for international students whose course content is all online.
Human toll for university faculty and staff – Closing the campus to all instruction would come at a significant financial loss to the university – a devastating loss if we were to re-close residence halls. Such measures would cripple the university’s ability to deliver on its education and research mission, not just for this academic year, but for years to come. The numbers of furloughs and layoffs that would be necessary to balance our budget would be staggering, made all the more challenging in an economy of 10 percent unemployment. Those employees’ ability to keep health insurance, pay their rent or mortgage, and meet basic living needs would be imperiled. Furthermore, the impact would extend beyond our campuses to surrounding communities where the affected employees live.
Should evolving public health conditions make it necessary to fully close our classrooms, or even our residence halls, of course we will do so. But each of us should be mindful of the devastating impact this will have, not just on the university, but on the people who rely on it for their education and their livelihoods.
The academic calendar remains the same
Classes will begin on August 24 and end on December 16 as scheduled, with all-online instruction starting on November 30, following the Thanksgiving holiday. As part of our effort to minimize the risks that increase in the winter months, we plan to hold Winter Graduation online.
Staff on campus
As the campus reopens, staff should work with their unit leaders to determine the proper balance of their work to be performed on campus versus from home. With the goal being to de-densify the campus and observe all health and safety protocols, every department has been required to submit its own safe return plan. As a general guideline, employees should avoid spending more than 50 percent of their time on campus. Social distancing rules will be in effect for all offices, just as they are in classrooms.
Residence halls will stay open throughout the semester
Mason’s residence halls will remain open under all of our planning scenarios. We will reduce occupancy from 6,200 students to approximately 3,350 students to achieve appropriate physical distancing. In the event of another Governor’s stay-at-home order, we anticipate considering residence halls to be our students’ homes away from home. We will take appropriate measures to keep them as safe, hygienic, and comfortable as possible, as well as offer appropriate public health and safety measures to the university employees who staff residence halls and dining facilities. In addition, University Life has planned a robust line-up of programming to ensure residential students continue to experience a full and satisfying on-campus experience.
Pre-move in testing required for all residential students
All students planning to live on campus in Mason’s residence halls have been recommended to self-quarantine two weeks ahead of their arrival. In addition, Mason has contracted with a vendor to provide comprehensive at-home testing kits to all students who plan to live on campus. Residential students are in the process of receiving and returning their test kits. Starting August 15, at move-in, every student will be required to have both a health screener green light as well as proof that they have taken a COVID-19 test to be cleared to stay in a Mason residence hall. We anticipate that residential students will be tested again periodically throughout the semester.
Daily health checks required for all who step onto campus
All students, faculty and staff who come to campus must complete an online health survey every day before arriving on campus. This tool – the Mason COVID Health Check™, an online health screening protocol developed by the College of Health and Human Services – will serve as a quick and effective way to track the health conditions of all students, faculty, staff and contractors who will work, study or live on campus.
Voluntary testing throughout the semester
Throughout the semester, students, faculty and staff working on campus will be asked to engage voluntarily in random COVID-19 tests. This protocol, recommended by Mason faculty experts and in collaboration with university leadership, will help to track the spread of the virus, should cases emerge. We encourage all members of the Mason community to agree to be tested if requested to do so. Working in partnership with our local public health officials, case investigation and contact tracing protocols also will be in place.
Safety measures being taken in our classrooms
Our classroom spaces will look and feel different this fall. Classrooms and instructional spaces have been modified such that seating has been spaced out to allow for six feet of distance between students; faculty have been allocated more space, up to 100 square feet. Some classrooms will have seats noting they should be left empty to ensure physical distancing; others will simply have fewer seats. High-contact surfaces will be cleaned and disinfected with an EPA-approved disinfectant twice each day during normal operation hours, in addition to regular overnight cleaning. In addition, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer stations are available in or near classrooms.
Reminders to do our part
Signage will be posted throughout campus to illustrate required physical distancing and point to hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing. All students, faculty and staff will be required to wear face coverings. Everyone will be given two reusable face coverings to use. And a multimedia communications campaign is planned to encourage all Mason community members to do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19.
This will be a Fall semester unlike any other we have experienced. The unknowns far outnumber the certainties. But together, we will continue to deliver on our academic mission, and I deeply appreciate the dedication and innovation of each and every one of you at this historic moment for George Mason University, the nation and the world.
Gregory N. Washington, PhD