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Leebron announces plans for fall semester: Shortened semester, dual in-person and online classes

Photo by Rynd Morgan | The Rice Thresher

For the less than 10 percent of the undergraduate population remaining on campus past March 25, campus life in the midst of the pandemic comes with changes to their living spaces, daily routines and the overall atmosphere of the campus.

By Rishab Ramapriyan     5/4/20 9:17pm

President David Leebron announced plans to reopen campus for the fall semester in an email to all faculty and staff on Monday evening. Rice plans to reopen for the fall semester in mid-August with its full population on campus, but there will be significant modifications to class and campus operations.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we will begin the fall semester on schedule in mid-August with all students who are able to return to campus,” Leebron wrote. “We will plan a gradual process of reopening. At each stage, however, we must be open to re-evaluating our plans as the facts and circumstances surrounding COVID-19 change.”

All classes will be delivered in dual-mode, available both in-person and remotely. Leebron said all class sessions will be recorded and students may choose to not attend the in-person classes on campus. The process of equipping classrooms with the technological infrastructure for remote delivery is currently underway, according to Leebron. 

“I know that so many of you are eager to be physically part of our community again and undertake your work in the most effective way possible,” Leebron wrote in his email. “Because certain members of our community, such as those with underlying health conditions, are especially vulnerable, they may choose not to be in the on-campus classroom setting and will be accommodated.”

Leebron’s announcement follows Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to begin reopening Texas last Friday. There are currently almost 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Houston and Harris County, but the curve has started to flatten. 

Due to the risk of a second COVID-19 wave, the fall semester will be shorter than usual with classes ending before Thanksgiving break. Leebron said the shortened semester will help avoid back-and-forth travel for the Thanksgiving holiday and provide flexibility for reducing campus populations earlier. Fall recess, scheduled for Oct. 12 and 13, will be canceled as a result. 

Faculty must also make it possible for all final exams and papers to be completed remotely. However, undergraduates will be allowed to stay in their residential colleges until the end of finals in mid-December, Leebron noted. Additionally, international students will be allowed to stay on campus over the winter break if they are unable to travel home.

Leebron also wrote that Rice will adopt additional safety and social distancing measures across campus, including contact tracing, precautionary isolation of individuals with possible exposure and protocols for testing. According to the email, large gatherings will be prohibited and class schedules may be altered to allow for appropriate social distancing. Leebron said that further specifics about these measures will depend on the circumstances closer to August. 

Leebron did not specifically mention any changes to Orientation Week activities in this email. However, Leebron wrote that O-Week coordinators are expected to return in July and complete their preparations for O-Week. It is still unclear when the summer practices for student athletes will begin. 

Finally, Leebron said that Rice will be “more open than in past” to granting semester or yearlong deferrals for new students, especially international students who may not be able to secure visas in time for August. 

“We expect a number of international students may have to delay their start until January, and we will have orientation opportunities, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, for those students at that time,” Leebron wrote. 

According to Leebron, on-campus research activities will start to resume as early as May 15, depending on the evolving national, state and local guidelines. However, the research activities will be initially restricted to promote safety and social distancing measures, including limitations on personnel group sizes. Library services will also gradually reopen in mid-May, beginning with the remote services and resources that Rice faculty and students need for their research. 

Only employees and staff essential to support the reintroduction of research activities will return to campus during May. All other staff will return to on-campus activities gradually throughout the summer in a phased plan that is set by their respective divisions and departments, Leebron said. All summer camps and events will still be canceled through July 1 and summer courses will be entirely online, as previously announced. 

A limited number of students will be able to access campus during this period, depending on whether they have a “concrete reason” to be present, Leebron said. Undergraduates who had been previously approved to remain living on campus after the March 25 campus closure were recently notified that they can remain on-campus for the summer if they are unable to return home, according to multiple sources. 

“Many risks come from outside our campus, and re-starting operations on the campus will only be successful if everybody also continues to maintain strong social distancing outside of the university,” Leebron said, adding that faculty, students and staff must continue to wear masks on campus for the time being. 

Leebron wrote that more details about these different changes and measures will be provided in the coming weeks. 

“With all that has happened to our community since early March, it will be exciting for us to return to campus,” Leebron said. “But we must undertake this process of reopening with care so as to assure the health and safety of all members of our community.”

[5/5/20 1:30 a.m.] This story has been updated with additional information about research activities and the phased reopening of campus. 

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