Anticipating the Fall

Following the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, and guided by the priority of campus safety, Columbia has commenced planning for a full schedule of in-person academic instruction inside our classrooms, with faculty, students, and the majority of staff back on campus. 

April 26, 2021

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Working groups on education, facilities and campus life, research, and public health were formed one year ago to help navigate Columbia during the pandemic. Following difficult decisions for the remainder of 2020 and the spring 2021 term about dormitories, dining, travel, gatherings, library access, and the character of classroom instruction, these committees, reporting to the President’s Task Force on COVID-19, were asked to protect public health and consider how best to maintain our commitments to excellent teaching, top-tier research, outstanding clinical care, and critical programs by crafting and recommending compelling policies and making operational decisions.

As planning proceeds for the fall, every step taken will continue to be governed by our highest priority: campus safety. It is a source of satisfaction and collective pride that, in this respect, Columbia has led the way nationally. Strategic choices to regulate density in our labs, ensure distancing in our classrooms and in other spaces, indoors and out, launch a carefully designed testing and tracing program, together with a heartening collective commitment to the Columbia Compact, have generated compliance, responsibility, and good outcomes.

At Columbia, our COVID-19 testing stands out as an instrument and as a measure of relative well-being. More than 220,000 samples have been taken since June 2020. Together with wastewater analysis, the tests conducted at the Black Building (CUIMC) and Lerner Hall (Morningside) have enabled a rapid identification of cases and contacts and have provided critical surveillance data confirming campus welfare. Overall, less than 0.5% of persons tested have had a positive result. This level compares favorably to significantly higher rates in the city, the metropolitan area, and the state, indeed across the country as a whole.

Our expectations for the fall are being shaped by the now widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines on our campuses and in ColumbiaDoctors locations, as well as confidence in the other protective measures put in place. Just last week, the University decided to mandate vaccinations by the fall for all students, undergraduate and graduate. For them, and indeed for all faculty and staff, the University is providing cost-free vaccination. We strongly encourage all our affiliates to take advantage of this availability as soon as possible.

Looking ahead, our four existing working groups have been joined by a fifth that is addressing the new work environment. All have been ramping up efforts to judge how best to rebuild campus density. With their direction, some important policy decisions have been made. In addition to those that concern the presence of teachers, students, and staff, and the vaccination mandate for students, these include guidelines for summer travel and guidelines for visitors participating in academic activities. These temporary limitations are intended to make a fuller campus life achievable and safe.

In tandem with public health developments, more decisions and communication will follow about the reopening and organization of facilities, the scale of gatherings, classroom scheduling and technology, athletics, laboratory and office space densities, and important aspects of work situations. All this will happen in the context of public health indicators and milestones.

Please watch for updates in the coming weeks. Like our community as a whole, we eagerly anticipate a steady and secure return to an increasingly robust Columbia. For now, let us celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of the many thousands of citizens of the University—near and far—who have been navigating hard times, and offer a warm salute to the graduates concluding their studies. The Lion roars.

With appreciation,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History

Donna Lynne
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Chief Executive Officer, ColumbiaDoctors
University COVID Director