Toward a Safe Campus

July 23, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

With only some six weeks ahead of us before students gather and instruction commences for the fall term, we are writing to summarize how the University is acting to make Columbia as safe as possible—indeed, more safe than the broader environment—with the return to an increasing level of campus density.

Our experiences to date are heartening. Laboratory research has resumed successfully with great care, and more than 1,400 faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students have undergone gateway COVID testing. So, too, has clinical training in medicine, dentistry, and nursing resumed. Our residence halls have been safely housing students who have needed to remain on campus even after the great majority were asked to return home in mid-March. Staff performing essential tasks have been on campus in safety.

Building on these efforts, assiduous work has been moving forward to prepare for return of more of our faculty, staff, and students to campus and to regain the usual vibrancy of our community. Every deliberation in the University COVID-19 Task Force, in the working groups on education, facilities, public health, and research, in the planning efforts at each of our schools, and in judgments about the character of instruction and the arrangement of physical space, has been guided, above all, by the goal of mitigating risk.

As each of you considers returning to campus, especially performing and supporting our core purposes of teaching, research, and service, we wish to highlight steps that are underway. They fall into three broad categories: (1) adjustments to buildings and common spaces; (2) individual-level requirements; and (3) actions geared to build a culture of mutual care and compliance.

Facility Enhancements

You will immediately see how the campus has been subtly, but importantly, altered in appearance and functioning. Signage has been widely installed to promote physical distancing and signal required public health practices. Elevators have posted limits on occupancy, and classrooms are also being modified with posted limits. New technologies have been installed to better connect students participating virtually in courses with those who are in the classroom. Workspaces have been redesigned to provide safe separation. Hand sanitizing stations are ubiquitous. Face coverings and personal protective equipment have been made available.

There also are less visible but vital transformations. Building by building, heating and air conditioning systems have been inspected, tuned, and modified, with upgraded filtering and maximizing air flow. Restrooms are incrementally being modified to provide self-flush toilets, touchless faucets, and towel dispensers, with maximum occupancy limits posted outside. Intensified rigorous cleaning schedules have been adopted, guided by safety protocols.

Up-to-date information on these and other building adaptations can be found on the University’s COVID-19 website.

Personal Requirements

The Columbia Covid-19 Testing Plan: Every Columbia affiliate who returns to campus must obtain an initial gateway test at Columbia. Appointments will be easy to access, locations will be convenient, results will be rapid, and confidentiality will be assured. Students who reside in campus dormitory-like residences will subsequently be tested frequently, using an adaptive and flexible model that acknowledges the situation both in NYC and on campus. Across the campus for others, a sampling testing strategy will ensure continuous assessment of the campus situation and allow us to quickly detect evidence of possible incipient outbreaks. Crucially, when an individual with a positive case is identified, contact tracing using the newly created Columbia University Contact Tracing Program will commence immediately to identify contacts at risk for infection. That capacity is being advanced through the guidance of a team at Columbia Health and the Mailman School of Public Health. In addition, protocols on self-quarantine for members of the community traveling to the campus from highly impacted areas nationally and internationally, and on isolation of those who test positive, have been established and details are available on our website.

Daily Symptom Check: ReopenCU, a simple self-checking app developed at Columbia, has been put into use for persons who have been returning to campus. Campus buildings will be accessible only to individuals who have recorded their daily review and have secured a green pass. 

Face Coverings and Protective Gear: When affiliates wishing to enter the campus undergo gateway testing, they will be provided with two washable cloth face coverings with Columbia insignias. Others who have already been tested will be able to obtain face coverings from their respective schools. Wearing these or equivalent coverings or masks in every public space, indoors and out, is mandatory. And where appropriate, especially in laboratory or clinical settings, other protective equipment will be provided.

Culture of Care and Compliance

The Columbia Community Health Compact: All students, faculty, and staff will be required to sign and adhere to the Columbia Community Health Compact. This statement of mutual responsibility outlines a two-way commitment to campus safety protocols. Its goal is to advance the principle that both personal and institutional behavior will have to meet high standards necessary to keep the campus safe.

Training: A safety training program has been put into place, and has begun to be utilized, for all affiliates who are returning to campus. It is characterized by clarity and ease of use.

Communication: Keeping you regularly informed is a commitment the University takes seriously. The communication instruments include our comprehensive COVID-19 website that is updated in real time, as well as town halls and webinars, and school-specific and central University messaging. These efforts are all aimed at keeping Columbia safe and strong.

We look forward to your feedback and to answering any questions or concerns you have.

Sending best wishes,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History

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