Dear members of the Rice community,
Today I write to provide updated information about our decisions and plans for the start of the spring semester. Our top priority has always been to keep our community safe. We have consistently emphasized that we will adapt as circumstances change. This letter conveys some significant changes in our plans in light of the unfortunate deterioration of the COVID-19 situation, nationally as well as in Houston and the surrounding area.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Houston has never been higher. We’ve seen a sharp spike in positive cases and hospitalizations that started in early December, and that has been accelerating over the holidays. At hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, the positivity rate increased last week to 15.2%, and across Harris County it has recently surged to over 20%. Daily new hospitalizations for COVID-19 have more than doubled since just before Thanksgiving. A good source of information about the Houston environment can be found on the Texas Medical Center website.
At Rice, approximately 25% of all of our positive cases since we started testing on campus five months ago occurred in the last two weeks alone. This increase was while there was almost no activity on campus. All of the infections were traced to off-campus activities over the winter recess. You can see all of Rice’s testing information on our COVID-19 dashboard.
As previously announced, we will start the semester on January 25, two weeks later than normal. Given the situation with the pandemic, which is unlikely to improve substantially over the next month, we are making a number of important modifications that reflect the current and anticipated environment through mid-February.
Fortunately, we have a number of ways to mitigate the risk on campus, while still meeting our education and research missions. The changes we are making to our previously communicated plans are as follows, and reflect our operational plan through mid-February:
- Instruction. We will begin the semester with all classes being delivered in an online only format, and we expect that to continue through mid-February. There may be a very few limited exceptions granted by the provost for special circumstances. I’ve asked the Academic Restart Committee to make recommendations, and further guidance will be coming next week from the provost.
- Research. We will move to Research Stage 2 on January 15, which is the posture we were in last summer. This allows essential on-campus research to continue, but with additional safety measures. The vice provost for research will provide more details about those measures in a separate communication shortly.
- Undergraduates. We are delaying the return to campus for most students until February 15, with exceptions for students who are already on campus or those who seek an exception from the Dean of Undergraduates based on their situation and needs. Later today, the dean will email all undergraduate students with instructions on how to petition to return prior to February 15. All petitions must be submitted by noon on Monday, January 11. We will be adjusting room and board charges and financial aid packages for students who had planned to live on campus, and more information on that will be communicated next week.
- Graduate Students. Scholarship should be done from home to the extent possible. Graduate students who are pursuing research degrees may come to campus consistent with a Research Stage 2 level of activity.
- Staff. We urge only essential staff to come to campus until February 8. You should discuss your work plan with your direct supervisor.
- Gatherings. No group activities that involve more than five people will be permitted indoors. Outdoor gatherings up to ten people are permitted if all are wearing masks and physically distanced at least six feet apart. We expect to relax these restrictions as our environment improves.
I close with a note of optimism. Rice has applied to the State of Texas for enough doses of the vaccine to inoculate every student, faculty and staff member of our community. We do not yet have official word on when we will receive the vaccines, but we are hopeful they will arrive sometime in February. The Crisis Management Team will keep you posted.
Thank you once more to our dedicated faculty and staff whose remarkable work over the past ten months have enabled us to continue accomplishing our mission in these difficult circumstances. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but still some distance to travel together before putting this time behind us.