COVID-19 Q&A with Northeastern Chancellor Ken Henderson: Campus life will continue as normal

Northeastern students cross the pedestrian bridge during the second week of classes in 2021. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Students arriving at Northeastern for the fall semester will see very few outward signs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing will be voluntary and the only people who will be masked will be those who choose to be.

Students, faculty and staff—or anyone else—will not be required to socially distance in classrooms, student centers, athletic facilities in Boston or on any of the university’s 13 global campuses. 

Masks will only be required in the health centers, in line with general public health guidance.

The university’s requirement for students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated and boosted will remain in place, and campus life will continue as normal, says Ken Henderson, Northeastern’s chancellor and senior vice president for learning.

“We are continuing fully in person, no distancing, with all events as they would normally be pre-COVID,” he said. “Convocation is in person. Orientation is in person.”

Henderson, who is a structural chemist, former dean of the College of Science, and co-chaired the university’s COVID management task force, recently answered questions from News@Northeastern about what to expect in the fall. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

headshot of ken henderson
Ken Henderson, Northeastern’s chancellor and senior vice president for learning. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What level of vaccination does Northeastern require?

On its U.S. campuses, the university follows CDC guidelines that recommend people under 50 be fully vaccinated and have one booster shot.

The Toronto and Vancouver campuses follow the Provincial Health Officer’s recommendation that students, faculty and staff be fully vaccinated, however the university does not require proof of vaccination in order to be on campus.

All COVID requirements and restrictions have been lifted in England.

What is the university’s policy regarding masking and social distancing?

Same as the spring semester. We don’t have any indoor mask requirements, or distancing or density requirements. The only exception is the health centers.

The number of people allowed to attend university athletic and cultural events is based on crowd capacity only.

People who choose to wear a face mask are welcome to do so.

Will students, faculty and staff be tested for COVID?

We have no formal testing requirement in place. We dropped that last academic year, in the spring semester. We are clearly now in a very different stage of the pandemic. Our goal has always been to provide the highest quality learning and research environment in balance with the risks associated with the pandemic.  

In the beginning we determined that as an experiential university it was critical to develop both in-person and remote options to best serve our community in a safe manner. At that time a key goal was putting measures in place to minimize the number of infections within our community. We were very successful in these efforts through a combination of distancing, deep cleaning, environmental controls such as increasing airflow in buildings, mask mandates, isolation, and regular comprehensive testing. 

These strategies were important at that time as there was no vaccine yet developed, and very limited medications. We are now in a position where we have very effective clinical measures to reduce the likelihood of serious illness, including vaccinations, antiviral medications and antibody treatments. 

In addition, the new variants of the virus that have appeared over the past year have become much more infectious but demonstrate lower severity than the early variants. In combination these factors lead us to a new normal, where measuring severity and hospitalization rates is more important than infection rates alone.

What happens if my student comes down with COVID? What is the protocol?

We’re continuing with the same policy we put in place in spring semester, which is to isolate for five days and wear a mask in public the next five days. After that, they can go maskless.

How will students with COVID continue their course work?

We moved back to a fully in-person expectation for all classes in the fall of 2021. We will continue with that, but the university will make academic accommodations for anyone with any illness—not just COVID. It’s up to individual professors to decide what accommodation works best for them and their students.

The professor could record the session and give students access. It could be synchronous live classes. It could be assignments. Thanks to COVID, we have the added advantage of new technology. That’s an added layer of flexibility.

Will medical treatment be available for students with COVID?

The key here is about severity. Obviously we have accommodations in place for those who are high-risk. But that is a small population of students. While COVID variants have been growing more contagious, they’ve also been declining in severity, especially among the younger population.

Students who wish to can consult with the university’s health counseling services or their own primary care physician. It’s really up to their comfort level.

How will guidance change as COVID evolves?

We use  guidance from multiple sources in order to make decisions. We don’t follow just one agency or information source. We look at a whole range of guidance in order to make decisions that make the best sense.

When the pandemic broke out, the world was a different place. But with the advent of effective vaccines and clinical treatments the world has changed significantly. We don’t look at the rate of infection alone. We also look at severity.

We’ve pivoted and changed depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. We can ratchet up restrictions as required and ratchet them down. Right now we’re back to no restrictions. Everything’s back to normal.