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Campus evolves with COVID-19

Illustrated by Tina Liu

By Rynd Morgan     4/3/20 7:56pm

The university's decision making has evolved along with the pandemic it is responding to, with near-constant updates on policies covering everything from travel, academics, campus buildings and housing and dining. Given the rapidly changing situation at the university as the pandemic ramps up in the U.S. and internationally, this article hopes to centralize the information and clarify the current state of university policies in each of these areas.

International travel suspensions

Changes to Rice University’s travel policies began on Jan. 29, when Rice suspended all university-sponsored travel to China by faculty, students and staff. A month later, on Feb. 28, Rice extended its suspension on university-sponsored travel to Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea, countries on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s level 2 and 3 travel warnings.

Along with those further restrictions, Rice began requiring everyone in the Rice community to report their international travel plans. Rice also asked that “any student, faculty or staff member who travels for personal reasons to any country on the CDC’s level 2 and level 3 warning list … to self-isolate and stay away from campus for two weeks after returning to the U.S.” 

Days later, Rice suspended all university-sponsored international spring break trips as well as “any other [international] official student travel” and all university-sponsored international travel through April 30 based on then-new CDC guidelines. Students already abroad were asked to stay in their respective countries. 

After the CDC categorized all international travel as level 2 in response to the global outbreak, the university amended their self-isolation requirement to apply only to travel to level 3 countries. However, at this point the Rice community had been informed that the university would go remote, with almost all students moving off campus.

According to a university-wide email sent by Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman and Interim Provost Seiichi Matsuda on April 3, Rice canceled all undergraduate international programs scheduled before the first day of classes of the fall semester. The canceled programs include summer study abroad programs, Center for Civic Leadership fellowships, faculty-led programs as well as third-party provider study abroad programs.

“The reality is that programs and conferences that we would have attended this summer are being canceled,“ they wrote. “Many who host international travelers aren’t in a position to do that now.  At the moment, travel is risky for both travelers and hosts. The world will still be there to explore once the pandemic has passed, and our responsibility now is to not contribute to the spread of the disease.”

In the same email, Gorman and Matsuda noted that graduate student and faculty international travel restrictions will remain in place at least through the end of May and “probably beyond that date.”

First Rice COVID-19 case

According to a March 1 update from Rice, a Rice research staffer who had contact with a possible positive COVID-19 case overseas returned to Houston on Feb. 20 and came to campus on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25, but did not enter any residential colleges or classrooms. Crisis Management later reported that the research staffer spent time in a secured suite on the first floor of Keck Hall while they were on campus. On Feb. 29, Crisis Management asked 17 individuals (faculty, doctoral students and staff) who had been in contact with the staffer to self-quarantine.

On March 5, ABC-13 reported that one of the first two verified cases of COVID-19 in Harris County was the Rice employee who had contact with a possible positive COVID-19 case overseas. Both of the first two cases had traveled to Egypt before returning to Harris County.

Crisis Management sent out a notice on March 7 that all classes in Keck Hall, where the research staffer had been, would be moved to other buildings at least through March 11. On March 8, all classes for the week of March 9 were canceled. In the March 7 notice, Crisis Management said that the affected employee's contact was limited to Keck Hall and they did not enter any classrooms or other buildings on campus and did not ride the shuttles. According to Facilities Engineering and Planning, the custodial staff wore “rubber gloves” when sanitizing Keck Hall and surrounding classrooms.

By March 10, the faculty, staff and students who self-quarantined after exposure to the positive case had completed their quarantine without symptoms, according to administration. 

“That makes the likelihood that the virus was transmitted to others on our campus by that employee extremely small,“ President David Leebron said in an email.

Campus closures

A Rice Alert sent on March 5 stated that Rice would not suspend campus operations or classes at the time. Three days later, classes and undergraduate teaching labs are canceled for the week of March 9 "out of an abundance of caution and to allow faculty and staff time to prepare for possible remote instruction this semester," according to an email sent by Crisis Management.

In addition to classes, Beer Bike was also canceled, along with all other gatherings and parties with more than 100 people, which included Rice Program Council’s Rondelet and Brown College’s public party Bacchanalia. At the time, research and athletic events would continue, along with all other campus operations.

On March 9, more cancellations took place. Owl Days, Rice’s largest prospective student event, was canceled in accordance with the cancellation of gatherings of more than 100 people. In addition, all student-run businesses, including Coffeehouse, Rice Bikes and the Hoot closed for the remainder of the week. Rice Memorial Center, Fondren Library and the Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center all reduced their hours for the rest of the week.

On March 12, an email sent by Matsuda to faculty said that Rice would move "fully into remote synchronous mode" starting March 23 for the rest of the semester. Rice students will not be allowed to live on campus starting March 25, with the exception of some international students, students with no internet access or in a precarious living situation. Students who wanted to remain on campus were required to fill out an exemption form, to be approved or denied by the office of the dean of undergraduates. At the time, graduate research was still ongoing, according to an email sent by Crisis Management. The email also clarified that Rice as a campus is still open. Gatherings were limited to 25 people.

Students received updates from their magisters and executive teams about the move-out process on March 14. Students already at home were encouraged to stay home and leave their items in their rooms to be sorted at a later date. Non-seniors on campus were given free PODS access to store their items; seniors were allowed to store some items in public spaces but not given PODS access.

According to an email sent by Gorman on March 16, students will receive up to $2,722 in refunds for room and board, as a credit “for the prorated amount of their families’ contribution to the fee for room and board charges for the 45 days remaining in the spring term as of March 23.” Students with parking permits who had moved their cars will receive refunds for the rest of the semester, and all students will receive $20 in refund from the Rec Center. Students who rely on work-study who have left campus will receive a lump sum “based on an estimate of what the student would have earned through the rest of the semester up to the maximum stated in the financial aid package.” The refunds will appear in students’ accounts no later than March 31, according to the email.

On March 18, the Rec Center, Rice Memorial Center, Fondren Library, Rice Children’s Campus, campus United States Postal Service office and Brochstein Pavilion closed starting at 6 p.m. until further notice. The Rice Counseling Center is no longer allowed to do in-person therapy until further notice.

Academic changes

Matsuda announced in a Rice Alert on March 8 that during the week of March 9, no classwork could be due and no exams could be held, and that assignments and exams originally scheduled for that week should be rescheduled for after spring break. On March 18, Matsuda directed all faculty that no classwork that was due the week of March 9 could be due until Friday, March 27. This also meant that only work that was to be due the week of March 9 could be due on March 27. No new assignments can be due the week of March 23.

Student Association Internal Vice President Kendall Vining created a petition on March 17 to allow students to change their grades for Spring 2020 classes from letter grades to pass/fail, while still allowing classes taken during the semester to count for major, minor and concentration requirements.

The next day, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said in an email that the executive committee of the Faculty Senate had approved a number of measures which have been sent to the full senate for final approval at the next meeting on March 25, including measures to allow undergraduates to declare any or all of their spring classes as pass/fail and for Spring 2020 courses with a grade of “P” to be eligible towards an undergraduate student’s major, minor or certificate’s course requirements.

Still happening on campus

Seniors organized a mock ‘commencement’ on March 13, with all colleges attending. Wiess and Hanszen Colleges hosted separate graduation ceremonies in addition to the mock event. Students also ran one last Baker 13.

According to a March 15 email from Leebron, commencement will still happen, although it may be rescheduled. The email also stated that students will receive refunds for room and board and other fees, and that employee compensation will not be reduced due to lower activity from COVID-19.

On March 16, 1.5 months after Rice’s first COVID-19-related action, campus went dry indefinitely, including students who are over 21.

This story has been updated on 4/3/20 at 3:51 p.m. with updates on travel restrictions. 

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