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Moving Forward, Building Confidence for New Academic Year

Note: This is dated information and may not reflect the current policies in place on campus. Please refer to We Are WPI for the latest information.

July 27, 2020

Dear WPI Community,

I write today—a little more than a month before classes are scheduled to begin and just after the deadline for our students to share their intentions for the new academic year—to affirm our plans to continue the thoughtful, deliberate, and safety-minded process of opening our campus. We move forward, even as it requires changes to nearly every aspect of our operations, fully committed to creating the most meaningful experience that we can for our students while respecting the need for serious safety protocols for us all.

As of today, we know that about 75% of our undergraduate and graduate students plan to come to campus for some or all courses, labs, research, work, group meetings, activities, or recreation—and they made their decisions with as much detail as we could provide, including the format of our various course offerings and our expectations for how we learn, live, and work together.

Starting this Wednesday, employees in Pathway 2 will begin returning to campus. Right now, there are already close to 500 employees working at least partially on campus, including our partners from Chartwells—and we expect another 500 or so to join them over the next few weeks. As we have said from the beginning, offices will not be operating at full capacity at any time in the foreseeable future.

Having worked so hard and being attuned to so many details, we remain acutely aware that the transition in this particular situation from theory to practice is the grandest of challenges. Personally, and professionally, each of us is dealing with the ongoing pandemic and the new normal it requires with varying degrees of concern. And that is totally normal. I hope that what I review here today, following up on our town hall this afternoon, will continue to provide the information you need to feel confident about your own plans as a member of our community. Of course, there are risks, but working together, we are doing all we can reasonably do to manage them.

None of us should feel nonchalant about “reopening” campus—and I wouldn’t want us to be. This is a community that cares deeply about our traditions, students, and each other—and that’s as it should be. Like everything else about what we are dealing with right now, the only way to get through the decidedly real anxiety and fear is together. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of supporting each other, taking responsibility for each other, and being patient, kind, and respectful with each other. We must do this together, as a community, with everyone contributing to the greater good—each of us mindful of the health, safety, and well-being of the other.

Speaking personally to those of you about to return to campus for the first time in months, I can tell you that the first day is the strangest—after that, you quickly settle into your new routines on our campus, which looks quite different in line with the safety protocols we have implemented.

Much of what we’ve been planning focuses on reopening campus with a “clean slate” to the greatest extent possible: not only are we cleaning and disinfecting the physical spaces and limiting the number of people who need to be on campus, our testing protocols, particularly our testing of incoming students before they arrive, when they arrive, and routinely as the semester continues, are designed to limit the potential for illness to come to our campus or to spread.

So, let’s dive in to some things you may have concerns and questions about:

Working remotely—and why it can be essential. If you can effectively perform your primary job functions off campus while students are on campus, it’s essential, and greatly appreciated, that you do so. De-densifying campus is important. Reducing the number of staff on campus—helping us de-densify—is the reason we added Pathway 4. It’s why there are thoughtful plans for every office re-opening and why we are not expecting the vast majority of you to be on campus all day every day. It’s also why our faculty have immersed themselves in improving their online teaching skills and adapted courses where practical; the majority of fall classes will be taught in the hybrid model, offering a blend of in-person and online learning AND being fully accessible online. It’s why we continue to offer as much flexibility as we reasonably can to faculty and staff, including specific accommodation for those whose primary job functions cannot be performed remotely once students return to campus, but who have a high-risk issue related to COVID-19. Most important, when you are on campus, you must practice social distancing, you must wear a face covering, you must participate in our testing program (see below), and you must take personal responsibility for the cleanliness of the space you use—be it the teaching lectern, your desk, or your lab area.

The professionals will be cleaning—and systems will be checked and updated. There will be enhanced cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces and fogging in classrooms each night. A ventilation system review is under way to confirm that systems are working as designed, to identify needed maintenance and repairs and perform them, and to adjust systems if possible to increase the percentage of outside air delivered to rooms. Facilities is also verifying that windows can be opened in rooms that rely on doing so for fresh air.  Restroom capacity has been reviewed and determined, and will be posted. Many restrooms will become single-occupant and gender-inclusive. Where it remains feasible for multiple people to use the restroom and maintain 6-feet of distancing, there will be reminder signage for the safety protocols. Electric hand dryers have been disconnected and paper towel dispensers installed.

Testing protocols—and what close contact looks like. New rules released in Massachusetts last week have us revisiting our already progressive testing plan of pre-arrival, one-time onboarding, and routine and symptomatic testing. We are focusing first on facilitating required testing and/or needed quarantine for those students who will be coming from outside New England, New Jersey, New York, or Hawaii—these are the states that have been identified in Governor Baker’s COVID-19 Travel Order, effective August 1, 2020. We will do pre-arrival tests for thousands of students, as well as tests upon arrival, and students will quarantine until the result is known, per the new state regulations. All students on or near campus will be regularly tested, some as frequently as twice a week. Faculty and staff working on campus will also be tested routinely either once or twice a week. There will be quick follow-up for anyone who misses their designated testing time. There will be no cost to students, faculty, or staff for this routine testing.

Those who test positive will be required to isolate, and close contacts will need to quarantine; we’ll work with our contact tracing partners to identify and contact individuals as necessary. A “close contact” is defined as being within 6-feet of someone who has COVID-19 in a confined space (a car, an office, a residence hall room) without face coverings for a prolonged period of time, about 15 minutes; close contact also includes coming into direct contact with infectious secretions, that is, being coughed or sneezed at. It does not mean being in the same classroom while following safety protocols for face coverings and distancing or being in front of someone in the socially distanced line at Dunkin’ (which will be open, by the way—extensive renovations are occurring now). Our plans for campus social distancing should greatly minimize the number of close contacts any positive cases have. 

New rules—enforcement and consequences. Every employee and student returning to campus is required to complete training and to acknowledge their attestation to follow its recommendations, and—in doing so—abide by our #WPITogether community pledge. While our focus will be on “catching people doing good” to reward following the safety protocols, there will be mechanisms for enforcement. Exceptions will be made only for individuals who have had their ID adapted to indicate they have a medical reason for not wearing a face covering. Everyone must to keep their distance, wash hands often, and stay home if they are not feeling well. And, yes, a faculty member can tell a student they aren’t able to be in the classroom or lab without a face covering; same for staff who work with students in their offices.

Finally, I want to share a recent article from Inside Higher Ed that I feel captures many of the challenges and decisions we are grappling with. Ultimately these are decisions with ethical implications, and I thought this article articulated many of the issues well. All of our work has required a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort, under incredibly challenging and dynamic circumstances—never before has our campus faced the scale and scope of a challenge like this. I am grateful to the CERT (Coronavirus Emergency Response Team) and all those supporting them—and to those of you asking questions and sharing your concerns so we can address them.

The complexity is real and we cannot—will not—let our guard down. Science is behind our decisions and actions, and we will not stray from that. Keeping the health, safety, and well-being of our community as our North Star is not just our guiding principle, it’s our responsibility.

Remember to check the website for updates, which are highlighted regularly on the landing page; WPI Today will also highlight reopening news. We will check in for another Town Hall by mid-August, and I’ve asked members of Management Council to keep their teams regularly informed of our status.

Thank you for your continued support of our team, our community, and one another.