Northeastern University announced plans to return to a fully in-person semester for Fall 2021, including all educational, co-curricular, and research activities. While university leaders acknowledge that COVID-19 is likely to linger for years to come, plans to resume normal campus operations are based in large part on scientific forecasts that anticipate the virus will be well under control by September.
The announcement by David Madigan, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern, specifically cited “the likelihood of widespread vaccination and the resumption of on-site K-12 education, which will relieve the tremendous care-giving burden that many of our faculty, staff, as well as students, have shouldered over the past year.”
Jackson Hurley, a fourth-year political science major, said the decision is another welcome sign after a year when many aspects of life were put on hold.
“It’s been a long year, but a lot of stuff is changing and I feel really hopeful right now,” says Hurley, who plans to graduate in 2022.
“I think everyone agrees that the benefits of being physically in class are huge, and being able to get closer to normal is exciting,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to graduating in person.”
Salima Amiji, a second-year pharmacy major, said she looks forward to seeing her friends in class and catching up with members of Northeastern’s South Asian undergraduate student group.
“I’m very excited,” says Amiji. “We usually have over 200 students at our cultural events, but it’s really hard to grab peoples’ interest when everything is virtual.”
Social media reaction to the announcement was swift and overwhelmingly positive. “We basically witnessed a tsunami of students and parents cheering on multiple social platforms,” says Renata Nyul, the university’s vice president for communications.
Northeastern closed its North American campuses last March and began managing the impact of the global pandemic. Over the year that followed, the Northeastern community worked to continue education and research in a safe environment without compromising students’ academic progression, using technology such as hybrid NUflex, which allowed for in-person and remote learning.
In turn, students, faculty, and staff remained flexible and quickly adapted to a new normal.
“My students and I had a really wonderful experience working together over the last year, but with something like journalism, remote learning is just not a permanent solution,” says Jeff Howe, an associate professor in the School of Journalism. Howe says he “could not be more delighted” to return to campus full time.
Northeastern required frequent COVID-19 surveillance testing and strictly enforced public health protocols when its campuses opened last fall. A series of technological innovations enabled both in-classroom and remote learning. While the university community remained agile, Madigan underscored that the past 12 months have reinforced the important role of physical campuses in enabling teaching, learning, research, and work.
“As President Aoun has said, the ‘power of place’ continues to be central to our mission of transmitting and creating knowledge,” Madigan wrote in a message to the Northeastern community.
COVID-19 cases remain remarkably low on the Boston campus, with an average seven-day positivity rate of 0.18%. Madigan emphasized that some safety precautions will likely remain in place next fall, such as face coverings and some degree of viral testing.
Madigan’s announcement comes at a time when many students and families are eagerly planning for the fall semester.
“As far as I’m concerned, the earlier we know the better,” says Jesse Reyes, whose daughter is completing her first year at the university.
“If the  reopen is done as carefully as Northeastern University has done everything else during this pandemic, then I don’t have any concerns,” says Reyes. “They are in as good a shape as any university to get back to full-time classes.”
Madigan emphasized that the safety of the Northeastern community will remain the top priority during reopening, as officials continue to follow the science, including the scientific expertise of Northeastern faculty members. The goal of fully reopening applies to all Northeastern campuses, although COVID conditions in Canada and the UK may require regional adjustments if vaccination does not progress significantly over the summer months.
“We will remain agile and prepared to pivot in the event that conditions change beyond our control,” wrote Madigan.
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