To all members of the IU community,
I write to update you on Indiana University's response to the COVID-19 global pandemic as we arrive at the end of April and, in particular, our planning for resuming normal or partial operations as we continue to work together to overcome this grave and unprecedented public health crisis.
As I have shared in my previous messages to you, the IU community has demonstrated remarkable courage, compassion, patience and strength in working together to keep our communities safe and healthy, while also ensuring our students can continue their academic progress during these extraordinary times. Our faculty and staff have risen to the massive and unprecedented challenge of moving all teaching for our more than 100,000 students across our state from a largely traditional mode of instruction to all virtual classes. We now have more than four weeks of fully virtual education behind us, with just one week left in the spring semester. And I simply cannot say enough about IU's resilient students, who are the lifeblood of our campuses. They are going through a period of great uncertainty in their lives, yet they continue to positively and patiently adapt under difficult circumstances.
This crisis has reflected the very best of IU. But we know that what makes our university truly special are our beautiful campuses filled with enthusiastic, energetic students, buzzing with teaching, learning and creative activities, and open to our alumni and friends. As such, a question nearly everyone is asking is: When can we restart something like our previous in-person teaching, research and other activities, such as athletics?
I want to address this central question in the most honest and forthright way possible, but first let me share a few general words about the approach IU has employed and adhered to throughout the current crisis.
IU’s methodical, deliberate approach to mitigating COVID-19
By now you are well aware of the speed and urgency with which IU reacted to one of the gravest public health challenges our state, nation and world have faced in a century. We made the dramatic move to virtual instruction, closed most residence halls and on-campus housing, extended spring break, and canceled and postponed events as soon as it was absolutely necessary to do so, recognizing that the risks of not acting far outweighed the inconveniences and challenges caused by these actions. We were one of the first universities in the country to announce we were moving summer classes online. And we quickly took action to ensure the continuation of our research activities in compliance with state and federal orders and guidelines concerning the pandemic. "Essential research activities" continued on campus, and those activities that can be conducted entirely remotely continued without restriction.
Despite the speed with which these and other actions were taken, ours has, in fact, been a very careful and methodical approach to mitigating this crisis. This has meant deliberately basing all of our decisions on the most current and accurate data and guidance that are being provided daily by our state and federal government authorities and our nation's leading health experts, recognizing that this information and guidance often changes daily and unpredictably.
Our overriding consideration with every important and difficult decision we have made has been -- and will continue to be -- protecting the health and safety of each and every one of the students, faculty and staff who comprise the IU community. And we will continue to fully embrace our responsibility to ensure the health of the communities we serve across our state.
Nevertheless, we are absolutely determined to move forward -- intelligently, prudently and rationally -- toward our ultimate goal to get back to in-person delivery of our core teaching and research missions.
Potential scenarios for reopening
We are very confident that IU will ultimately return to a full, in-person university experience. This is our overarching goal for every campus, and like everyone else I want that return to happen sooner rather than later! But the seriousness and uncertainty of the pandemic demands caution. As Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently said, this is not a race to be first, but rather to be the surest and safest. We cannot be cavalier about the health and safety of any member of our community, and we cannot be confident that the future will play out as we would wish.
It would not be realistic or even responsible to promise a full resumption of in-person activity in the fall, as the best medical and public health evidence and projections tell us that the novel coronavirus will remain active to some degree, and that the potential for COVID-19 reoccurrence will remain with us until a vaccine is widely deployed. Thus, it is essential that we plan for multiple return scenarios in the coming academic year, including, but not limited to, an in-person experience.
To this end, we are planning for five such scenarios for the 2020-21 academic year.
Scenario 1 is a return to in-person teaching and research in the fall. This, of course, is the scenario all of us would most prefer, but it is also highly unlikely. As experts have warned, it is likely we will need to continue social distancing and many other preventive measures to detect and protect against the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is widely deployed. This will mean that even a return to in-person teaching and research would require careful consideration of, among other measures, reconfiguring large lecture classes; re-engineering courses and performances that bring people into close physical contact; and modifying laboratory and studio practices to ensure proper distancing, numbers of people in gatherings and cleaning.
Scenario 2 is a "hybrid" reopening in the fall involving both in-person and virtual teaching and research. At this point, this is the scenario we believe is the most likely, though this could change rapidly with some new positive or negative development. The balance between in-person and virtual teaching would emerge from the impact of continuing public health directives. This scenario has several variations, each of which would require a high level of flexibility to accommodate rapid change in the course of the pandemic, as well as the need to accommodate students and faculty who are unable to attend class in-person -- whether due to illness, self-isolation, special vulnerability to COVID-19 or travel restrictions.
Flexibility could take many forms. It could involve classes offered both in-person and virtually. It could also involve prioritizing some classes for in-person or for virtual instruction, based on their size, content or other characteristics; creating modular classes that are designed to include both in-person and virtual elements, or that can switch from one mode to another very quickly; rethinking the weekly schedule, to spread out larger classes, for example, to allow for smaller sections; or, most likely, some combination of these and other measures.
We are also looking at three additional scenarios that would correspond to the pandemic remaining so serious that the fall semester has to be held virtually but we can resume hybrid operations in the spring; the need to return to virtual operations in the spring after having begun hybrid operations in the fall; and what would be the most difficult of all, virtual operations for the whole academic year. These are, of course, scenarios that we hope we can avoid. We might also see a mixture of scenarios across our campuses depending on the regional impact of the pandemic.
We must also recognize that students' expectations of the quality of virtual instruction will be much higher next fall or spring than they were this spring. Everyone understood this semester that we moved very quickly to virtual instruction, which meant that the great majority of classes offered after spring break were neither intended nor designed for virtual delivery. These classes have required great patience and forbearance by our students and all concerned.
Restarting university operations
So how will we decide how to return to in-person education of the kind outlined in Scenario 2? To put it more broadly, how will we "restart" university operations? Ultimately, until a vaccine arrives, it will likely involve the deployment of some combination of:
- Continued social distancing.
- Fast and comprehensive virus testing and, perhaps, antibody testing.
- Temperature monitoring and surveillance.
- Contact tracing.
As previously announced, we have formed a Restart Committee, chaired by IU Executive Vice President and IU School of Medicine Dean Jay Hess, to advise us on these measures. The committee, which also includes the deans of the IU schools of public health and other IU Health, public health and medical experts, is tasked with recommending when and under what conditions can IU restart its educational, research and other activities.
The recommendations of the Restart Committee will then be used to begin a phased resumption of university operations, in which we assess the success and lessons learned from each new phase of restarted operations to build confidence for the next. Thus, subject to the governor's decisions about the future of Indiana's lockdown and to the recommendations of the Restart Committee, it is our aim -- as one of the first of these "confidence-building measures" -- to fully restart all university research activities as soon as is practicable.
To this end, we have also created a Laboratory Research Restart Committee, co-chaired by Vice President for Research Fred Cate and James Wimbush, vice president for diversity, equity and multicultural affairs and dean of the Graduate School, to implement the recommendations of the Restart Committee in the context of the critically important laboratory and related research that had to be suspended last month.
Additionally, I have directed each IU campus to establish committees, tailored to the campus's needs, to plan in detail and implement where necessary components of the potential scenarios for reopening. These committees will give careful consideration to how any new operational frameworks will impact health and safety practices, student enrollment (including our residential, nonresidential and international students), course offerings, staffing levels, cost structure and research activities. Hundreds of administrators, faculty and staff are now involved in the vital work of all of these committees.
The success of these and other efforts will be very important in developing our plans to move to further phases. The timing will be determined, in part, by the governor's decisions, which we should know soon. But we would hope to begin our phased restart in May, though I stress again that we can give no guarantee of this at this stage.
A final word
We are still far from sure what form the next academic year will take, but it will almost certainly look and feel different. COVID-19 will be with us this fall in some way, and perhaps longer, until a cure is uncovered. To this end, I do not want to sugarcoat the situation with trite phrases or hollow optimism. Even under the best of circumstances, academic and research life at IU will not be the same for some time, and we will feel the repercussions of this pandemic for many years.
We have already had to make several difficult decisions, and we will have many more to make in the coming weeks and months. However, our investments over many decades in basic infrastructure, key efficiencies, inter-campus collaboration, innovation and fiscal responsibility have put IU in a good position to weather this storm. It will not be easy. But one thing is clear: It will take all of us -- working together with wisdom, fierce determination, flexibility and resolve -- to surmount the current crisis.
With my deepest appreciation for your ongoing commitment to the health and well-being of the IU community and the many communities on all of our campuses,
Michael A. McRobbie