The start of spring semester is 10 days away, and we are on schedule and ready to get started. I know everyone is eager to put 2020 behind us, and I’m right there with you. But before we turn the page, let’s take a moment to think about all we achieved over the last year.
George Mason University went fully online in March 2020, then demonstrated that we could safely bring our students back to campus for a meaningful fall semester. We kept our COVID cases among the lowest in the Commonwealth, having confirmed fewer than 500 cases of COVID among our 50,000 students, faculty, staff and on-campus contractors since reopening campuses on August 17. We educated and graduated record numbers of students. And we contributed greatly to the national conversation around finding a way out of this pandemic, through our research and our expertise.
Up to this point, our management of the virus has taught all of us that Mason can handle whatever challenge comes our way. Solving problems is what we do, it’s in our DNA. Furthermore, this experience has reminded us that our strength comes from our ability to work together to find solutions. Mason’s commitment to shared governance, shared support and shared responsibility has been instrumental in leading us to this moment.
After considerable conversations with leaders across the university and public health experts, we plan to start the semester on Jan. 25 – as we announced in December and one week later than originally scheduled – with a mix of in-person, online and hybrid classes, and skipping spring break. We did not make this decision lightly. We have spent the past few weeks monitoring data, talking with faculty and staff from across the campus, hearing from many experts in public health on what’s best for our community and directly engaging our scientists relative to predictive models that they have developed. This has helped us determine that we are well-positioned to open and expand our operations through the course of the semester, as conditions allow.
From the fall, we learned that students’ risk of serious illness from COVID-19 was extremely low on college campuses when appropriate precautions are put in place and strictly observed. Two-thirds of the more than 700 colleges surveyed by The Chronicle of Higher Education reopened with in-person instruction in the fall, as we did. Mason was a leader in keeping cases low in the Commonwealth, and we found no evidence of transmission in any significant way in the classrooms, laboratories or lecture halls (this was true overwhelmingly for our peers at other universities). In fact, spikes in cases were found to have most often occurred when students left their campuses during holiday breaks.
Students have made it clear that they want to continue to learn on campus and participate in activities when it is responsible to do so. I know that cases have been rising nationally and regionally since the late fall, and that you want to stay safe. I do, too. We also have a responsibility to be here for our students. They want to continue learning in a safe campus environment while staying engaged with their faculty and peers. I believe this is not an either/or decision and to make it one would be a disservice to our students and a default of our responsibility. We can do both, and the fall semester has helped to solidify that fact.
Given the broader prevalence of the virus in our midst, and the threat of a more contagious strain, we have stepped up our efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay. It starts with a stronger plan for testing led by our faculty.
Large-scale, rapid-results testing, run by Mason faculty
This week, we switched to a saliva test, which is less invasive to administer and quicker to analyze. We are greatly expanding our testing capacity and are now processing test results in a lab on our Science and Technology campus, run by our own esteemed faculty. We will start by testing every residential student a minimum of once per week. It is expected that this testing will ramp up to twice per week by mid-semester. This also allows us to increase the number of faculty, staff and off-campus students participating in surveillance testing, with a total goal of 10,000 tests per week by March, as we shared earlier this week. Our systems will enable faster and more reliable results of asymptomatic cases on campus, which will allow quicker isolation of students, faculty and staff with a goal of limiting any potential spread.
Pretesting residential students
We are also pretesting our residential students this month before they arrive on campus and will require a “soft quarantine” until results are given. After that, students will be tested at least once a week, as noted above.
Pausing on the 50 percent return goal
We have decided to hold off on the goal of having faculty and staff return to campus 50 percent of the time. We will continue with how we operated in the fall and will reevaluate this goal at the end of February, when we have a better sense of the virus and progress made on efforts to vaccinate across the region.
Pivoting to vaccinations
The majority of our faculty and staff are in Group 1c for the vaccine rollout. While we do not have any vaccines and are not currently conducting vaccine distribution, we have been asked to prioritize distribution given our large number of faculty and staff. Toward that end, we will prioritize staff and faculty based on those who are returning to campus regularly or interacting in person with students.
Staying the course to limit the spread
As a community, we have shown that we can all do our part to limit the spread. We will continue wearing face masks in public, staying six feet apart, completing the Mason Daily COVID Health Check, washing hands frequently or using hand sanitizer, and staying home when feeling unwell. Please consult the university’s Safe Return to Campus website for more details on our safety plan.
A great university is the sum of its parts, and everyone’s contributions are essential to our success. We have come so far in this journey, and I’m excited for what the spring semester holds.
Let’s get started!