Officials continue planning, organize initiative for in-person fall amid ‘unsettling’ uncertainty

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Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz said it is difficult to identify the most likely scenario for the fall, but officials are spending “a lot” of time planning for in-person instruction.

Officials say a large degree of uncertainty remains as they continue planning for students to return to campus in August.

Provost Brian Blake and Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz announced last week they have developed a Back to Campus Initiative, with a dual focus on academic planning and campus operations, that will prioritize the GW community’s safety and care while operating to the “fullest extent” possible, according to an email to the GW community. They said public health faculty and other experts are evaluating options for ongoing testing, contact tracing and quarantining for students to return in the fall.

“This is still our goal, and our staff and faculty have been working tirelessly to prepare for our planned August 31 fall start while also developing contingency plans for all possibilities,” Blake and Diaz said in the joint email.

Public health faculty in coordination with the Division of Safety and Security will begin a pilot testing and tracing program this summer, according to the email.

“We are fortunate to have significant faculty expertise in infectious disease and epidemiology, and members of our public health faculty have already been working closely with our medical enterprise on testing for medical professionals at GW Hospital and the MFA and with local health departments on contact tracing,” the email states.

Blake said in an interview Wednesday that he has set an expectation for faculty to plan for in-person instruction with added flexibility for students who may not be able to attend some classes because of the pandemic.

“That gives us an opportunity for students who have vulnerabilities and health conditions to have the ability to get in and out,” he said.

Diaz said in an interview that it is difficult to identify the most likely scenario for the fall, but officials are spending “a lot” of time planning for in-person instruction.

“Attaching a probability to these scenarios is difficult, and it’s the most unsettling part of this whole exercise,” Diaz said. “Typically, when you run scenarios, you can attach a probability across a spectrum. We can’t do that with this simply because there’s so many things outside of our control.”

The initiative’s academic planning dimension – which is being led by Terry Murphy, the deputy provost for academic affairs – will prepare GW’s academic and research enterprises for an in-person return this fall and develop appropriate contingency planning, according to the email. The email states that the team is divided into four focus areas: academic instruction; enrollment, retention and student success; research; and faculty.

The operations dimension – under the leadership of Scott Burnotes, the associate vice president for safety and security – is charged to prepare GW’s campus spaces and residential housing for an in-person fall semester, according to the email. Burnotes will oversee four functional areas: community health and well-being, campus events and activities, support services and campus spaces, the email states.

“Feedback from these efforts will ensure that our approach is thoughtful, intentional and comprehensive,” Blake and Diaz said. “In all of our planning, we and other members of leadership are continuing to consult frequently with faculty, including through the Faculty Senate and its committees.”

Officials are expected to announce a final decision in mid- to late-June.

“As we plan, we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to find a ‘new normal’ for our campuses this fall — but as we have said previously, we must be nimble and responsive to the evolving realities of the pandemic,” the email states.

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