A framework for resuming in-person activities

Dear Faculty and Staff:

Spring is one of my favorite times of the year in Washington. Flowers are blooming, the weather is starting to warm up, and the sun shines almost every day here in Pullman. It is a welcome counterpoint to the challenges we have faced together as a community the last two months while dealing with COVID‑19.

I know it has been a frustrating, and for some—extraordinarily difficult—semester. Yet your resolve, and the resolve of our students, to persevere through this pandemic has been exceptional. I hope that you and your loved ones are doing as well as possible given the current situation. Know that you are in my thoughts, and my heart is filled with gratitude for all of the hard work and sacrifices you have made to continue advancing the University’s mission.

As I begin to reflect on the current academic year, my thoughts also turn to the longer‑term projects that I did not get to during the spring semester as well as the priorities for fall semester.

For example, we need to finalize the WSU system strategic plan and initiate an annual planning process for updating it. Later this month, we will share the report from the working group that is making recommendations about system roles and responsibilities, and we will use the recommendations to develop a clear and concise action plan for optimizing important operational aspects of the WSU system. I also want to spend time with incoming Provost Elizabeth Chilton to ensure a smooth and seamless leadership transition.

We will deliver the most appropriate instruction that will lead to the best outcomes for all of our students during the fall semester. For most programs, I am confident that we will resume some forms of in‑person instruction throughout the WSU system. Indeed, several higher education institutions have announced similar plans, including Purdue University, the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, and Harvard University. These announcements are met with tremendous hope from many students, faculty, and staff—as well as with a healthy dose of skepticism from others.

While it is not entirely clear what our on‑campus environments will look like for the 2020–2021 academic year, there are some key themes emerging that give us glimpses of the future reality:

  • Protecting the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff will be of paramount concern as we plan for in‑person operations. As such, we will adhere to established protocols to address employees’ health concerns, including opportunities for alternative work locations and telework. Students with similar concerns will be provided opportunities to participate in online classes. We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for all of our students.
  • Physical distancing will need to be part of our plans for the entire academic year. This will apply to all in‑person activities—inside and outside of the classroom. Additionally, we will continue to adhere to the other best practices recommended by heath experts, including environmental disinfection and frequent handwashing. Our plans will be based on the assumption that a widely available vaccine for the virus will not be available during the academic year.
  • Any plans for on‑campus operations will need to determine the role of protocols for COVID‑19 certification and testing of faculty, staff, and students in accordance with established guidelines while ensuring we address privacy and ethical concerns. Additionally, we will work with our colleagues in higher education across the nation to share best practices for maintaining a safe environment at our campuses.
  • We will need to apply the four‑phase “Smart Start” approach to reopening as outlined by Washington Governor Jay Inslee as we resume more in‑person operations. Our plans must also allow us to flex if, as is likely, the course of the pandemic shifts and the resulting restrictions under which we operate change accordingly.
  • The approach to classroom instruction will need to be flexible to ensure physical distancing and the ability to adapt to individual and community circumstances as the pandemic evolves. I have heard many different ideas discussed by the WSU community that mirror those from my conversations with higher education leaders regionally and nationally. The ideas include “flipped” classrooms with small sections for Q&A, creative scheduling (making use of classrooms and instructional opportunities on Saturdays, Sundays, early mornings, and evenings), and hybrid classes with some instruction online and some instruction in person. Some larger classes may need to be mostly online. As a community of scholars, we need to think creatively about how to synthesize physical distancing and an in‑person instructional environment for both large and small classes. I have asked Interim Provost Bryan Slinker and Vice President for Academic Innovation and Outreach Dave Cillay to lead system‑wide efforts to design ways to create exceptional classroom experiences that accommodate physical distancing and provide flexibility to adapt if circumstances change. The specifics of those solutions will be tailored to meet the needs of individual campuses.
  • Research, scholarship, and creative activity remains a vital component of WSU’s mission. Much of this work is being successfully executed remotely. Our leadership is examining options for ramping up research safely and securely from its current reduced level.

I know that there are and will be many more questions and concerns as we plan for an uncertain future. Our budget going forward, of course, is one of our chief concerns. While it is still too early to speak with certainty about the financial picture, we will share that information as soon as it is available.

Know too that I am in regular communication with University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce about the UW’s strategies and approaches in dealing with COVID‑19. Likewise, members of our senior leadership team are in contact with their counterparts at other leading research universities in California and Oregon.

We will continue to keep you updated as the details of our plans for the fall semester emerge. If you have suggestions, please send them to me or any other leader at WSU. We need the absolutely best ideas if we are to successfully resume any in‑person activities.

Here at WSU we have some of the smartest and most creative people in the world among our faculty and staff. By continuing to work together and sharing ideas, I am confident that we will continue to provide our students with one of the best educational experiences in the nation while keeping everyone safe.

Go Cougs!

Kirk Schulz, President
Washington State University