A Letter to Faculty on Reopening Campus

May 18, 2020

Dear Faculty Colleagues:

Congratulations on completing the academic year under such inauspicious circumstances. I applaud you for your perseverance in the work of teaching and inquiry, despite the constraints of the COVID-19 crisis. I have heard many stories not only of your innovation, but of your sincere commitment to our students’ learning and well-being, even though many had to deal with disruption at home. We will all need to call on such perseverance, innovation and commitment in the coming months as we adapt to the new normal brought on by the novel coronavirus.

In an April 28 letter to you from Tom Burish, Marie Lynn Miranda and me, we informed you of the working groups that are crafting plans for reopening and continuing the work of the University. They have been working hard and, indeed, have formulated sound recommendations ahead of projected schedules.

On May 1, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that barring any resurgence of the coronavirus, he expects to lift all restrictions associated with it on July 4. While there remain uncertainties about the future, I am aware that, now that the spring semester has ended, faculty must prepare courses for the fall, students must make plans for a possible return and we must plan for the phased return of staff to work on campus.

Recognizing the need for clarity, and thanks to the diligent efforts of our working groups, I write to inform you of our plans for reopening the University. While these plans are subject to changes as we monitor developments, they will guide our preparations and they can guide yours as well.

Formulating a Plan for Reopening

Let me begin by reviewing the principles guiding our decisions. Three are particularly relevant to the question of reopening the campus. First, of course, we will protect the safety of our students, faculty, staff and their families. Secondly, we are committed to offering an unsurpassed undergraduate education that nurtures the mind, body and spirit. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through scholarship, research, and post-baccalaureate programs that heal, unify and enlighten.

It was necessary, given the threat of COVID-19 and government health directives, to send students home in March and turn to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, to close or hibernate our labs and to close our libraries and studios. We could not have asked more from faculty and students in making such online instruction work as well as it could. Yet students and faculty from whom I have heard missed the experience of residential life, personal interaction between students and faculty in and outside the classroom and involvement with student organizations. These are all critical parts of the education we strive to offer at Notre Dame. Moreover, the hibernation of labs and closing of libraries impeded the research work so central to Notre Dame and vital for the good of our society.

As announced in our April 28 letter, several groups have been charged with working on various aspects of the reopening of campus. The Academic Continuity Working Group has made recommendations about our academic calendar, the modes of delivering instruction and ensuring flexibility should circumstances change. A Research Task Force is developing plans for the reopening of research labs and libraries. Finally, a Medical/Health/Operations Working Group is attending to the various steps needed to keep our campus healthy and safe for everyone who resides and works at Notre Dame. This group has benefited from consultation with experts on our own faculty, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins and particularly with a team of medical specialists from Cleveland Clinic. Members have also met with Dr. Mark Fox, the deputy health officer of St. Joseph County.

These groups have developed plans and given me the information I need to make decisions. In addition, we have met with a Faculty Advisory Committee. I have discussed with this committee key recommendations of the working groups and shared with them my own thinking. I am grateful for their thoughtful questions and insights.

Informed by the recommendations and thoughts of these various groups, we have concluded that we are in a position to reopen campus gradually. We will monitor developments, and should a serious outbreak occur, or should we be unable to acquire what we need for testing, it may be necessary to alter these plans. Still, the outline below describes our current objectives.

It will be necessary, of course, for every member of the campus community to be flexible and adopt behaviors that will make our campus as safe as it can be. In the new normal we are facing, we will need to ask everyone to accept some inconveniences and adopt behavioral norms and practices necessary to protect the health of every member of our community.

Research Labs, Studios and Libraries

A Research Task Force, led by Vice President for Research Bob Bernhard, is currently developing a plan for the safe and gradual reopening of our campus research labs, studios and libraries in the coming weeks. We expect that this plan will include a phased reactivation. An upcoming letter from Bob Bernhard to faculty will provide greater detail around the reopening of these facilities.

Summer Session

Given our focus on fully reopening for the fall semester, we cannot host many, if any, programs even during the second half of the summer session. We are considering options that will allow the return of a very small number of students in July, mainly those whose summer work is preparatory for the fall semester. Limiting the numbers of this group will allow us to devote time, energy and resources to reopen in the fall. The Provost’s Office will communicate with relevant programs about their status for the summer.

Fall Semester

By far the most complex challenge before us is the return of our students to campus for the resumption of classes in the fall semester. Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed. We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.

A major hurdle, of course, is to identify returning students who are carrying the novel coronavirus and prevent them from spreading it to others. We will institute a comprehensive testing protocol, and we have identified facilities to isolate those who test positive and quarantine those students who have been in close contact. We will continue the testing, contact tracing and quarantining protocol throughout the semester, acting aggressively to isolate those with the virus and quarantine any who have been in close contact. We will also institute a number of other health and safety measures.

Some institutions are electing to reduce the number of students on campus by inviting back only a portion of the student body at any time. We have resisted that course because we believe in the educational value of the on-campus experience for all our students, and we recognize it is particularly valuable for students whose living situations away from campus may not be as conducive to study. We intend to bring all our students back to campus for the semester, though we may stage their return to allow for testing and orientation. We believe that, with extensive protocols of testing, contact tracing and isolating or quarantining, coupled with preventive measures such as an emphasis on hand-washing and norms for social distancing and wearing masks in certain settings, we can keep our campus environment safe.

A particular epidemiological challenge for college campuses arises when students leave for breaks, are exposed to infectious agents, and return to campus and possibly spread infections to others. To minimize this possibility, we plan to begin classes during the week of August 10, continue through without a fall break and conclude the semester before Thanksgiving. More details about the schedule for the fall semester will be forthcoming from the Registrar’s Office.

We will, in addition to our testing, contact tracing, quarantining and preventive protocols for students, have parallel protocols for faculty and staff. We will be working on these and communicate them to you in the coming weeks.

Fall Study Abroad Programs

The Office of Notre Dame International has worked with the Academic Continuity and Medical/Health/Operations working groups to develop criteria for deciding whether to proceed with study abroad programs. They include a consideration of official health advisories and travel bans, an evaluation of local health care systems, isolation and quarantine requirements and availability of facilities. Notre Dame International hopes to make a decision on study abroad programs in early June. Students enrolled for study abroad have also enrolled for classes on campus, should it be necessary to cancel study abroad programs.

Necessary Adaptations

We must also be prepared for the possibility of an unexpected, severe new outbreak of COVID-19. If such an outbreak occurs, we may need to return to remote instruction. We encourage you to prepare your fall classes with two relatively distinct periods of equal length with their own learning goals and testing procedures. Preparing two distinct periods will allow for a smoother transition should events make it necessary to keep students home in the first half of the semester because of an outbreak, or send them home for the second half of the semester. We will also encourage you, if possible, to be prepared to offer your classes both in-person and through remote instruction. The remote platform will allow any student in isolation or quarantine to continue to participate in the class, and it will ensure that we will be prepared should a new outbreak make it necessary to send our students home and continue instruction remotely. If you have any questions about preparing your classes in a way that will make them adaptable to the special circumstances of the fall semester, please contact your department chair or dean.

Making the Teaching and Research Environment Safe

We are also working on establishing cleaning protocols and norms for hygiene, social distancing and masks in research spaces, classrooms and other instructional settings, and will communicate these in the coming weeks. We will do everything we can to provide you with a safe working environment when we do reassemble.

We recognize that some faculty and staff or their family members may have health conditions that place them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19, and they may require special accommodations for their work on campus. We are working on these accommodations and criteria for qualifying for them. We will also communicate these to you in the coming weeks. I assure you that we will take every reasonable step to ensure your safety, in accord with sound medical advice.

The pandemic has underscored how interdependent we are in today’s world. Our actions may either preserve or endanger the health of others, and others may preserve or endanger our health. As we prepare to reopen the University, let us take precautions not only for our own health, but also for the health of those around us. I believe that working together we can reopen the campus safely.

Please be assured that you and your loved ones are in my prayers.


Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.