Northeastern intends to reopen all campuses in the fall. Research labs and offices will start opening sooner.

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Northeastern University is planning a phased return of faculty and staff to its campuses in the coming weeks with the intention of reopening classrooms and residence halls to students in the fall.

The measured process was detailed by Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, in a letter to the university community on Friday. Aoun said that plans for each of Northeastern’s locations will be accelerated or decelerated based on real-time COVID-19 data, in accordance with public health and government authorities.

Aoun outlines a series of core values that will guide the reopening process including, “maintaining the health and wellbeing of the Northeastern University community—and the world beyond our campuses.”

A group of university leaders are working on detailed plans to gradually reopen research labs and administrative offices starting as soon as later this month. The phased reopening will be done in accordance with public health guidance, while maintaining low density and adopting strict protocols to reduce the risk of infection.

The university will prioritize the return of faculty and staff who can best complete their work on campus, including researchers who need access to labs and scientific equipment. The selection of these priority individuals will be determined by senior leadership.

For a period of time, employees may choose whether or not to return, as pre-existing health conditions, lack of available child care, and concerns about public transportation may make the immediate return to campus offices extremely difficult for some.

In his letter, President Aoun led with the university’s intention to offer on-site instruction and a residential experience for students this fall. He emphasized the work underway to reimagine how space can be used for living, learning, and recreational activities.

“This is a highly complex endeavor; in fact, even more complicated than the move to remote learning and working we accomplished in March,” Aoun wrote. “It will require new and innovative thinking about classroom usage, residential occupancy, dining, athletics, student activities, and other elements of campus life. Rest assured that every aspect of how the university operates is being evaluated in the context of our new reality.” 

While classroom instruction should continue to be the norm at Northeastern, Aoun said that lectures of many larger classes will be offered in both live and recorded formats. Some other hybrid classes will be taught to a combination of students who are participating either on-site or remotely—a formula that has been shown to work in other settings, said David Madigan, incoming provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern.

“The hybrid-flexibility model for classrooms—where some students are in the room and others can watch it live or after the fact—is something that we’re looking forward to leveraging,” said Madigan, who has been leading the university’s planning group on experience and learning. “It’s very exciting to think through the ways that we can make sure that students have a terrific experience.”

The university will expand student housing into new buildings and communities to reduce residential density, said Aoun. A Northeastern team is investigating facilities that could include apartment buildings, hotels, and other academic institutions that anticipate unused housing capacity, including some that are outside Boston.

“We’re exploring the residences very closely to be sure that we can run them in a safe manner,” said Ken Henderson, chancellor of Northeastern, who has been heading the university’s planning group to reopen the campuses. 

Among the new requirements is residential space for those who will need to safely self-isolate, Aoun said.

Safety measures that will enable the campuses to reopen include face masks, staggered business hours, increased disinfection and cleaning, use of the SafeZone app to check into campus buildings, and large-scale deployment of testing and contact tracing, said Aoun.

“One of the lessons we have learned from other countries is that successfully reopening society depends on widespread use of testing and contact tracing—by both public and private entities,” Aoun said.

Northeastern has been exploring creative ways of building upon Massachusetts’ contact-tracing program to head off potential outbreaks.

“Massachusetts has been a vanguard in its development of state-wide contact tracers,” Henderson said. “We are looking at doing an additional layer of contact tracing for our own community that would work in partnership with the state tracers.”

Students, faculty, and staff at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences may be asked to contribute to the testing and tracing efforts, Henderson said. The college’s nurses may administer COVID-19 tests as well as train others to do so. Students could assist in work experience or co-op settings. Clinical faculty would collaborate in a variety of areas.

“You can imagine having an army of people who are helping ensure the health of the community,” Henderson said. “Our strategies are evolving as the science is evolving.”

The university’s transition in March to remote learning and working enabled the spring semester to be completed, while Northeastern’s research efforts continued—with a special focus on cutting-edge work to analyze and contain COVID-19 that has been utilized by the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

Northeastern’s response to the public health crisis has helped drive the university’s mission of interdisciplinary research and learning, said Henderson, who has seen new levels of cooperation over the past two months.

“Although it’s been a highly stressed period of time, a tremendous amount of people have been doing a huge amount of work, and the level of creativity has been unsurpassed,” Henderson said. “The artificial bounds between disciplines have completely melted away as the priority of work has taken over. It has been remarkable to see so many different groups of people coming together to get work done.”

Reopening timelines will be adapted for Northeastern’s system of campuses in London, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver; in the Bay Area; in Charlotte, North Carolina; and in the Massachusetts communities of Burlington and Nahant. Additionally, the Roux Institute at Northeastern University will be opening in Portland, Maine, in September.

Aoun said that university leaders will be providing more details in the days to come, with updates to continue throughout the summer and into the fall.

“The current crisis presents an opportunity for us to reimagine how we live, work, and learn,” wrote Aoun. “By continuing to rely on our agility and ingenuity, I am confident that our university—and our community—will emerge stronger and even better prepared to address the world’s grand challenges.”

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