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Dean's Update | Our Year Ahead

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The following message was sent to undergraduates at Columbia College on July 7, 2020.

Dear Students,

I am writing today, following President Bollinger’s message, to share College-specific updates about the next academic year. This is the first of many updates to come, as details continue to be finalized.

We have all seen, through news and media, just how difficult it is to forecast the future of COVID-19 with any sense of certainty, as public and health officials continue to gather data and confer with medical experts to assess this still evolving virus. New information continues to be released each day, which is why our own plans have been shared in phases, in order to rely on the most current assessments of risk and safety available to us.

In our planning, we have strived to uphold the following priorities, aligned with our institutional values:

  • Health, safety and well-being for all members of our community
  • Exceptional educational experience, contextualized through today’s unique lens
  • Community bonds, strengthened by mutual care and support
  • Recognition of each individual’s unique needs
  • Access and support that acknowledges the changing economic landscape, family circumstances and more

While we wish it were otherwise, it is clear that next year will not be normal. Until a proven vaccine is developed, Columbia must continue to maintain a de-densified campus as we have seen the significant impact that physical distancing has had on the spread of the virus. This means the on-campus student population must be limited in order to adhere to distancing guidelines that require spacing out students in residence halls, classrooms and other public spaces. In addition, we must factor in the safety of our faculty and staff, including essential campus services staff, all of whom have close day-to-day interaction with students and many of whom may fall into higher risk segments of our community. We must also consider the safety of our neighbors in Morningside Heights and New York City at large.

With that, let me now share additional details about the upcoming year that we are able to provide at this time.


Academic Schedule

The next academic year is structured in a three-term format, which allows schools and students to take advantage of coursework into the summer of 2021. Most students will fulfill a majority of their coursework during the fall and spring; however, the summer provides an additional opportunity for students to distribute credits throughout three terms or earn additional credits during that time. As a reminder, the dates for the terms are as follows:

  • Fall Term (September 8- December 23)
  • Spring Term (January 11- April 26)
  • Summer Term (Summer A: May 3- June 18, Summer B: June 28- Aug. 16)
  • Commencement scheduled for the last week of April

Academic departments and programs have adjusted their curricular offerings across the Fall, Spring, and Summer terms to allow students flexibility in fulfilling their requirements and making progress towards their degrees. More news on this will be shared in coming weeks.

Academic Format

As noted by President Bollinger, all Fall classes will have an online component: some courses will be taught entirely online, while other courses may be taught in a hybrid model that combines in-person and online components. There will be a small number of classes held entirely in person. Decisions about Spring and Summer courses will be finalized as public health decisions develop over the coming months. I know that this has a particular impact on our international students, whom President Bollinger also addressed earlier today. More news will be shared about this unique population as soon as we are able.

While this past spring required a sudden shift to remote learning, in which faculty and Columbia had to transition with no notice, we are now actively engaged in preparations that will ensure the richest academic experience possible, in keeping with Columbia's standards of excellence. We have reviewed student feedback about remote learning in the spring and faculty are reflecting on ways to continue to improve the learning experience for everyone. This will be a continuing priority throughout the duration of the summer.

Campus Life

Current projections and assessments based on NYC and NY State guidelines indicate we might be able to bring back to campus up to 60% of our undergraduate population in Columbia College and Columbia Engineering. This number could continue to change but it represents our current aspiration. We know all students and families deeply value the experience of residential life as a key component of the college experience. Yet, to achieve our distancing requirements, not all students will be able to safely return to campus right away and we will utilize single rooms for all housing assignments. We have begun planning to offer student programs and services virtually and we will work closely with students to develop new and creative ways to uphold and sustain our bonds and community spirit.

Along these lines, we have decided to offer the New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) as a virtual experience for our newest students, who will receive more details about this later this week.

Those who return to Columbia’s campus will be asked to agree to the Columbia Community Health Compact, which will require each individual to comply with established health and safety protocols and to uphold our shared commitment to limit the spread of the virus and to protect one another’s well-being.

Residential Life

As outlined in President Bollinger’s message, we plan to bring back first- and second- year students to campus this Fall, in addition to accommodating a small population of students with special circumstances. We then plan to invite third- and fourth-year students to join us in the Spring term. This is all contingent on evolving health guidelines but we are hopeful that all students will have the opportunity to be back on campus for at least one semester during this upcoming year.

Tomorrow, students who were guaranteed campus housing for this year will receive more information about how to confirm or update their interest in living on campus. In addition, as noted above, we’ll consider special circumstances that may necessitate on-campus housing for certain populations, including:

  • Students who lack safe and necessary conditions for learning in their home environment
  • Students who are pursuing advanced academic projects that require access to materials and spaces found only on campus
  • International students who have visa and travel concerns
  • Students with an existing accommodation with Columbia Health and/or students who have discussed personal circumstances with a provider in Columbia Health

Health & Safety Protocols

Columbia is establishing many new restrictions and protocols that will affect daily life across campus and in residence halls. These will be in the spirit of maintaining the individual health and safety of every member of our community, including yours. While there is a great deal still being detailed, new aspects of campus life will very likely include:

  • Regular testing and contract tracing protocols throughout campus to monitor resident student and staff health
  • Requirements for wearing face coverings and continued physical distancing of six feet
  • Residence halls will utilize only single bedrooms to start
  • Columbia Dining will offer take-out and pre-packaged meal options, including traditional hot and cold foods
  • Limited access to many campus facilities, potentially including the Libraries and Dodge Fitness Center
  • In-person student events will be limited, if they exist at all, due to capacity constraints in gathering spaces, which will continue to be adjusted throughout the year
  • There will be limits or restrictions regarding guests on-campus, both in the residence halls and as part of student events
  • Enhanced cleaning and disinfection of all facilities, in accordance to health guidelines
  • New York City itself may have additional requirements that all residents must abide by, including limited subway usage, restrictions in public spaces and more
  • If infections occur, we will isolate those infected and quarantine those who come into contact with them

You can find more information and stay up to date by visiting the College resource page, which includes answers to many of your questions. To help with our continued planning, please complete this mandatory questionnaire to assist us in our next phase. Your completion is required by Friday, July 10.

With all the information I’ve shared today, please know things will continue to change. We cannot control the trajectory of the pandemic, in New York City or in the places around the world our students call home. In the coming weeks, the College will send more updates to answer additional questions and to provide the support you need as you prepare for fall.

This has been a challenging time of enormous change, in which we have all been asked to sacrifice so much with no guaranteed return, except for our belief in the future. As we move forward together, I want to emphasize the importance of your own well-being and the need to take the time necessary to also care for yourself. Remember to reach out to your advisers or to connect with our counselors in CPS, available via virtual delivery throughout the summer.

The year ahead will be full of unknowns but I believe that Columbians will adopt flexible mindsets so we can make the most of this truly unusual time in history. There is no perfect situation in a global pandemic and so I am especially appreciative of your patience, generosity of spirit and forbearance as we move forward.

Thank you for taking time to read this important update. I wish you and your loved ones a healthy and safe summer and look forward to sharing more updates soon.

Dean James J. Valentini

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