Dear Colleagues and Students,
Earlier this week we announced that we were canceling classes for the week and limiting any gatherings until the end of April to not more than 100 people. As our world, our nation and our city face a major health threat, it falls upon us as a community to adopt the measures that will both protect all who work and learn at Rice and allow us to continue our mission of teaching and research.
I want to begin with our thanks. We thank our staff, who have supported our students and faculty in our mission throughout this time, providing the services we need both to carry out the decisions we have made and prepare for the future. We observe time and again how the extraordinary group of people who are not only dedicated to establishing the resources and environment that support excellent teaching, learning and research, but exercise true caring for our students, faculty and other members of the Rice community.
Equally, we thank our faculty, who have approached the challenges calmly and thoughtfully and are now preparing for a range of possibilities, including moving their courses to a remote instruction format. This involves substantial work to make such a change on short notice while maintaining the excellence they demand of themselves and our students. It is abundantly evident that our faculty members are absolutely committed to their intellectual mission as teachers, and it is difficult both in terms of labor and love to adjust courses designed around personal engagement to a very different form of interaction. But as we face the challenges posed by the COVID-19 epidemic, we must reorient ourselves to deliver a high quality education while taking steps to protect our students, faculty and staff, no matter how the threat of COVID-19 evolves. Equally, we must continue our vital research and scholarship and adapt the ways in which we undertake this work to address these risks.
And we thank and acknowledge our students and student leaders, who have handled an extremely difficult situation and sudden change in expectations with calm and optimism. Most of our undergraduate students have left campus to be with their families or for other destinations over this extended spring break. But many of our students need to remain on campus. Some international students are under substantial travel constraints, and other students may have strong reasons for remaining on campus. Master’s students face short timelines, both to meet their academic goals and to network for future opportunities. Our doctoral students are committed to their thesis research, which places extraordinary demands on time and thought. We are committed to doing everything we can to maintain the opportunity to pursue these many forms of scholarship during this time.
As we reported yesterday, the faculty, staff and students who were quarantined because they had interacted with the Rice employee who was diagnosed with COVID-19 have completed the 14-day quarantine period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention without symptoms. That makes the likelihood that the virus was transmitted to others on our campus by that employee extremely small. We are deeply indebted to the people who took proactive steps to protect our community.
Although the immediate danger to our campus posed by that exposure appears to be past, we must take the continuing threat of the novel coronavirus very seriously. We must expect that both the incidence in Houston and in our nation may change rapidly, and we will need to respond to that news quickly. The health authorities to whom we look for guidance may decide on different approaches, and we must take that into account as well.
It is thus incumbent on all of us to prepare for a wide range of possibilities. That is in large part why we decided to cancel classes this week, so that our faculty and staff would have both this week and spring break to prepare for a range of eventualities. We hope to avoid moving the vast majority of our courses online, but we must be prepared for that. We expect to reopen after spring break, but that decision could change based on evolving circumstances or advisories from the CDC that we continually monitor. We should engage in social distancing protocols and behaviors that reduce the likelihood of transmission of the virus. We must take special measures to protect those who are at increased risk, such as those with compromised immune systems. All of this requires preparation now and will require the continued strong cooperation of everyone in our community.
As noted, our current intention is to continue the semester after spring break with at least smaller classes able to function as before. But we cannot guarantee that. We have not made decisions yet regarding commencement and do not expect to do so before mid-April at least. We want to continue to base our decisions on the best information available, and this is a rapidly evolving situation. We know all of this uncertainty poses challenges, and we will endeavor to communicate about plans and decisions promptly and transparently.
We have faced a number of crises together, most having to do with weather events. Before I came to Rice, I also experienced the campus effects of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City. A strong community emerges even stronger from such challenges. As one of our students was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “I know this is jarring but I’ve never been let down by Rice in crisis situations. We went through Harvey. We can definitely do this.” This is I think a reference not to any one part of Rice but to all of Rice—our students, our staff and our faculty who demonstrate unwavering commitment, compassion and courage as we stare down such challenges.
We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that there are not risks and extremely hard decisions ahead. We appreciate hearing from all members of our community as we confront these challenges. Together we will indeed "do this."
With warm regards and gratitude,
Note: Just as this letter to the campus was about to be sent, both Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Hidalgo issued 7-day emergency health declarations and cancelled city and county sponsored events. We will be assessing whether these announcements have any specific implications for Rice.