Dear WPI Community,
Welcome to A-term and the start of the fall semester! The first week of a new academic year is always exciting, but this year it’s palpable. Even though we’re all wearing masks and social distancing, as folks make their way around our de-densified campus, you can still see their smiling eyes and hear warm greetings exchanged between friends and colleagues. There is so much joy here, and it’s no wonder: WPI is a true community, and we’re better together.
COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time—and, as challenging as that is, we need to figure out how to live and learn with this virus if we possibly can. So, while this horrible pandemic may have set the world on its heels, we are now participating in what must be one of the most monumental returns to campus in WPI’s 155 year history.
After months of planning and re-engineering essentially everything about our academics, our processes, and our physical campus, we are delighted that about 75% of students will spend some time on campus this fall—with about 1,400 students studying entirely remotely (split about evenly between undergrad and grad students). The vast majority of our classes are hybrid/on-line, with all but the fully in-person courses (<10% overall, mostly wet labs) accessible to students studying remotely.
Undoubtedly, there are real challenges to our return, as evidenced by scores of news reports of other campuses who brought students back without the testing adequate to quickly detect and then isolate outbreaks. Those plans seem to be derailed mostly by large, unsafe gatherings of students off campus. We are learning from their stumbles.
As we face new situations in the new not-quite-normal, we are keeping regular contact with our Medical Advisory Board members who have been generous with their time and expertise when we ask ever more specific operational questions. As we have shared previously, our student Code of Conduct has been updated to ensure clear understanding of the importance of adhering to our health, safety, and testing protocols; we’ve also made it clear that there will be swift and significant consequences for violations to those protocols.
We are working to ensure that students understand that there are safe ways to socialize, and we’re providing access to such activities. For example, while they looked very different this year, our New Student Orientation and our distanced bridge-crossing were meaningful and enjoyable experiences for our new students. The Sports and Recreation Center is now exclusively for students—with totally updated operations—to provide access to healthy activities. And our athletic teams will be doing strength and conditioning and some practicing, under strict guidelines, even though we’re not competing this fall.
To be sure, almost everything is different: we’re much more spread out, and every aspect of our “normal” experiences have been thoughtfully reimagined and phased—from our move-in process to how we eat and socialize, teach and take classes. If you are on campus, I’m sure you see the differences and rest assured they are pervasive across campus life. All spaces, and every classroom, have been de-densified, either by removing seating or marking seats that need to be left unoccupied. Plexiglass barriers are abundant in classrooms and student-facing offices. You see the signs all over, reminding everyone to wear face coverings, showing which way foot traffic flows, etc. All buildings are card access only. Restrictive visitor and vendor policies are in place. We have tested and reviewed ventilation in every classroom, and many common spaces, and are doing all we can to ensure clean air. We’ve set up spaces outside to encourage people to eat and have group meetings outdoors. We also have plenty of space set aside for isolation and quarantine, and we rented the Hampton Inn for the year to ensure our residence halls are de-densified. Other important changes include our daily symptom-checker and a new dining reservation system. We also have developed many resources to help employees and students find the most accurate and updated information about returning to campus, testing protocols, and what to do if you think you've been exposed to or have COVID-19.
It must be said that we are extremely fortunate to be in Massachusetts where our comprehensive—and essential—testing program is possible. Everyone who is on campus on a regular basis to teach, work, conduct research, or take classes has been cleared to be here, thanks to our extensive pre-arrival and on-board tests. The routine on-campus testing, taking place in Harrington, is going smoothly, and test results range from 24-48 hours to be returned. Our COVID test data is available here and is updated daily. Thus far, we have few positive tests, and have managed those cases according to our planned processes.
Most importantly, however, it’s clear to me that we would not be here today without the work of an extraordinary team. Our team got ahead of this early and, as you would expect, unpacked each challenge and addressed it smartly, thoughtfully, and in a way driven by the latest science. If any campus can operate in the age of COVID, WPI can.
Nonetheless, we will be closely monitoring all data, and we have a plan for scale-back should it be needed. In summary, should positive test rates on campus trend badly, or isolation space begin to get too full, we will move from our current “TechFlex” status to a “2-week remote” status, where students essentially shelter in place for two weeks and take all courses remotely. If that does not succeed in bringing our numbers back in line, we would move to send many students home in a status we call “limited on campus.” Finally, as a last resort, we can move back to an essentially all remote “severely limited” operations status (as we did in March).
The fact remains that, as prepared as we are, the virus may still win. But, working together, we are going to put up a good fight. And we’ll learn a ton along the way.
We are at the start line, ready to run. But this isn’t a race with one winner—we only succeed if we work together to stay together. I want to thank you all for the good work and amazing support that got us to this point. I could not be more proud of this community. Have a great A-term and fall semester everyone.