On Monday, July 20, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Provost David A. Tirrell, and Vice President for Student Affairs Joseph E. Shepherd hosted a virtual town hall to discuss Caltech's plans for instruction and on-campus living for the fall 2020 term. "We appreciate the time that all of you are going to devote to trying to understand our plans better," Tirrell said in his introductory statement.
The discussion, which drew 1,200 attendees, featured a panel that included Kevin Gilmartin, dean of undergraduate students and incoming vice president for student affairs; Doug Rees, dean of graduate studies; Cassandra Horii, director of the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO); Felicia Hunt, assistant vice president for student affairs and residential experience; Jennifer Howes, executive director of Student Wellness Services; and Ilana Smith, director of the international offices.
More than 100 people submitted questions in advance about the Institute's plans for fall 2020, Tirrell said. "This is a fraught time," Rosenbaum added, "but we are pushing forward in a way that will be effective for our entire community."
Shepherd underscored that notion while outlining how Caltech created its fall plans for undergraduates. "From the outset, we knew that this decision would challenge us," he said. "We made our decisions in the face of significant uncertainties. We still do not have approval from our local public health authority to reopen for in-person instruction or to occupy the residences. It is essential to plan to reopen, but we are also fully prepared to carry out remote instruction with minimal on campus activity if necessary."
Regarding the return of some students to campus, Shepherd said the Institute looked to city, county, and state public health directives. These require single occupancy in all dormitories and minimizing the shared use of showers and restrooms, which in turn reduces the number of undergraduates who can reside on campus. Some graduate students live in Caltech-managed apartments, rather than dormitory settings, Shepherd noted, where density is more easily managed.
In order to reduce the number of people on campus, he added, the Institute, with the help of working committees, developed a process of stages by which to invite some students to return. "It is a compromise designed to serve the students who most need to be on campus for a variety of reasons related to academic progress, challenges in remote learning, personal circumstances, and transitioning to independent living and learning," Shepherd said. The plan prioritizes students whose academic progress this year demands that they take courses with in-person components and international students whose presence on campus may be required to maintain immigration status.
Hunt's remarks focused on Caltech's commitment to creating a community for students, whether on campus or remote, despite the extraordinary circumstances. Dining, for instance, will supply meals for takeout only, but the residences have been experimenting with shared meals over Zoom, physically-distanced outdoor dining, and other ways to cultivate togetherness safely. "We are so pleased to have some residents returning to campus in the fall and will work to create a community in ways that are typical of Caltech but also respectful of this unprecedented time," Hunt said.
Gilmartin stressed that those students who do return to campus will be required to adhere to the Caltech Community Commitment, a list of guidelines and practices established to protect the health and well-being of the entire community. For example, students will be screened for COVID-19 upon their initial arrival on campus and are expected to monitor their temperature daily, adhere to requirements for maintaining physical distance and wearing face coverings, and to be aware of the presence of COVID-19 symptoms or general changes in their health. Howes noted that anyone who is ill is expected to report their illness to Student Wellness Services through a dedicated COVID-19 reporting application and to support contact tracing efforts if they are found to be positive for COVID-19. The Institute will continue to reserve designated quarantine and isolation spaces on campus for undergraduate and graduate students who are in Institute residences, Howes said.
"I urge all students and their families to review these policies," Gilmartin said, referencing the Caltech Commitment and Student Health and Hygiene Policy. "Students need to understand that their residence on campus and access to facilities is contingent upon compliance."
The CTLO's Horii noted that, because courses will primarily be delivered remotely, with only a limited number of courses with in-person components, Caltech will be expanding access to online tools and technology that will help with remote teaching and learning. These tools and technologies include digital collaborative whiteboard applications and a digital tablet loaner program as well as a new learning management system, Canvas, which will help streamline students' access to courses and opportunities to engage with instructors and peers.
When asked about the experience for graduate students, Rees noted that both the academic programs and the students have had to be flexible in responding to the evolving situation. As the Institute prepares for the fall, he said, Caltech expects lecture courses to be almost exclusively online, while graduate research courses may have in-person components with the consent of students and instructors and only with appropriate health and safety protocols. For incoming students, Rees added, the Institute is exploring whether remote matriculation is an option for those impacted by the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and visa delays.
"Our goal remains to support the progress of graduate students toward fulfilling their degree requirements," Rees said.
In closing the meeting, Rosenbaum said that, ultimately, the Caltech community must be ready to deal with the constantly changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic. He said that, while Caltech's plan for the fall term represents a careful and measured approach to bring students back to campus, the evolving situation could require the Institute to convert fully to remote instruction, a contingency plan for which Caltech is prepared.
"We'll have a rewarding fall term, no matter what the circumstances," Rosenbaum said.
A full transcript of this meeting is available on Caltech's coronavirus website.