Messages from the University

Final preparations for the fall semester

August 24, 2020

Dear students and families,

We hope this message finds you well and managing the circumstances of this unusual summer as smoothly as possible. Today was a significant day here on Washington University’s Danforth Campus – it was the first day of the fall semester for the Brown School and the School of Law. For students in those schools, we’d like to welcome you to the new academic year. Whether virtually or in person, we are glad you are with us.

Our team here has been hard at work since spring and we are now in the final stages of our preparations for the beginning of the fall semester for the rest of our students, for whom classes will resume on Monday, September 14. As that date draws near, we wanted to provide you with an update on our planning.

Like many of you, we all have been closely watching as colleges and universities around the country have begun opening their campuses to students this month. We want to share a couple observations and let you know how what is taking place on other campuses continues to inform our plans for fall at Washington University.

First, we are observing that many students, faculty, and staff who are back on campus in person at other colleges and universities are deeply committed to the public health principles of universal masking, physical distancing, and monitoring for symptoms – three key behaviors that we know greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19. We also see that there are cases of COVID-19 on campuses that have opened – and that those cases often are a direct result of people not following basic public health principles, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These outbreaks are a clear reminder that all of us – students, faculty, and staff – must adhere to our public health requirements, all the time. Otherwise, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome than our peer institutions who are struggling to contain COVID-19 on their campuses, and in some cases having no choice but to send students home and shift to fully online learning. 

As we have said throughout our entire planning process, our goal is to create an environment where people can return to Washington University to pursue maximally our mission of education, research, and patient care. To do that, we must minimize the spread of COVID-19 within our community, and we will need your help in order to be successful. We are working hard to create a safe environment on campus and believe the strategies we are implementing will allow us to be together this fall. At the same time, we continue to monitor the public health situation in the St. Louis region closely, and will be prepared to shift our plans if circumstances require us to do so.

As we welcome many of our Brown School and law students back to campus this week, we will be paying close attention to what is working well and anything that may need to be adjusted. We will gather feedback from students about how our efforts are facilitating adherence to the public health principles, and how they are impacting the on-campus experience, both in the classroom and out. We remind you that campus will be different this fall. Many of our classes have moved partially or fully online, and many offices on campus will have limited in-person staffing and office hours. This is to allow faculty and staff who can do their work in support of our teaching and research mission remotely to do so, reducing the overall population density on campus so we can bring students who opt for in-person learning back to the classroom to the greatest extent possible. All of our key programs and services that can connect virtually with students are doing so. This means you will be able to meet with advisors and counselors virtually, whenever in-person meetings are not needed or not possible.

The usual places on campus where many of us enjoy gathering together – the Danforth University Center, Bear’s Den, libraries, to name a few – will have extremely limited access. We know it is very important for our students to have places to go, so we have created other spaces around campus where you can study and spread out. You will see tents in prime outdoor areas around campus like Mudd Field and Tisch Park, and there will be reservable “cubbies” located in convenient gathering locations where you can work, study, eat, or relax at a safe distance from others. We have invested heavily this summer in planning, facilities, and programs to create an environment that minimizes the spread of COVID-19 and still allows our students to be together and visit different areas of campus, while staying safe and following all public health requirements.

COVID-19 testing

We plan to test all undergraduate students who will be living in Residential Life housing for COVID-19 upon arrival. This will allow us to identify anyone who may be COVID-positive and reduce the risk of spread in Residential Life housing from the very beginning. The viral testing will be free, highly accurate, and administered by university medical professionals. Results will be available within 24 hours.

We are focusing our entry testing efforts on our residential students primarily because we believe the communal living that takes place in Residential Life housing poses a greater risk of large outbreaks than other housing arrangements. It is essential that we identify any students who may be COVID-positive upon arrival if they will be living in this type of residential setting.

In addition to arrival testing of undergraduates in Residential Life housing, we also will provide testing for all Washington University students, faculty, and staff who develop COVID-19-related symptoms at any time during the fall semester. This will allow us to quickly identify those individuals who are most infectious, isolate them, perform robust contact tracing within our community, and quarantine contacts who have had exposure to the person testing positive.

To learn more about our strategic approach to testing, and to watch a video from our medical experts explaining our philosophy, visit the COVID-19 testing page on the WashU Together website. This page will be updated with additional information about testing during the fall semester.

Every year the fall semester brings much excitement as we all return to campus and reconnect with friends. Every new academic year is full of promise and possibility. As always, this year we are looking forward to the start of the fall semester together. But we need to be careful, focused, and proactive if we are to be successful in combating the spread of COVID-19. 

Science and statistics tell us that there will be students, faculty, and staff who contract COVID-19 this fall. We fully expect that a number of students will test positive upon their arrival to campus next month, and we are well-prepared to care for them while they recover. This is a very widespread and contagious disease, and while no one wants or expects to become infected, it will happen. And when it does, transparency will be important. Starting the week of September 14, we plan to share a dashboard with updated information about the number of positive cases on our campus, as well as other available data. We will share this not to cause fear, but rather to encourage us to work together to minimize the spread, which almost entirely can be done by wearing masks and staying six feet away from others at all times. 

Later today, our leadership team in Student Affairs will be sharing more detailed information about our plans for the weeks ahead, including reminders about the WashU Community Pledge and Policy Acknowledgment, and more information about our quarantine and isolation housing and the very serious measures we will take with members of our community who violate our shared community public health requirements. 

We are proud of Washington University. We know we can do this. We cannot wait to be together again soon. 


Andrew D. Martin

Beverly Wendland
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs