BREAKING: AU announces spring semester will have some in-person classes, limited housing
University cites better health and safety protocols and “lessons learned” in decision
American University is adjusting to a hybrid curriculum for the spring semester, although the majority of classes will remain online, due to the trajectory of the coronavirus and lessons learned at other schools in recent months, the University announced on its website on Monday.
The University will expand in-person classes in the sciences, visual and performing arts, studio courses and select others. The semester will begin a week late, on Jan. 19, and spring break is canceled to avoid the risk of infection while traveling.
“It is likely that case counts and community spread will continue at high levels throughout the winter months,” the announcement said.
Certain students with “specific programmatic requirements” or extenuating circumstances will be allowed to live on campus, and the University is considering permitting a few hundred freshmen to live on campus later in the semester. The 10 percent tuition discount from the fall semester will continue as well.
Some in-person classes will be able to access the Hall of Science, Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building, and Media Innovation Lab, according to the announcement and an email sent to the AU community by President Sylvia Burwell. Students who abide by health and safety protocol, including wearing a mask and physical distancing, will be allowed limited access to campus.
“Decisions regarding our spring operating status are based upon the values that have guided us throughout the pandemic— protecting the health and safety of our community, advancing our education and research mission, and supporting the broader COVID-19 response in the Washington, DC, region,” the announcement said.
The University will also ramp up its health and safety protocols by increasing COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff that regularly come to campus in the spring. Most will continue to work remotely, however.
“I thought that at least freshmen would be able to come onto campus [beginning at the start of the semester], like the original fall plan,” said Daniella Olivares, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I understand their decision due to safety concerns and stuff like that, but it is disappointing to see other schools have the Big 10 games going on while we are still stuck at home.”
Those students living on campus in the spring will be required to have regular COVID-19 testing, the announcement said.
While some students expressed outrage and concern on social media over the cancellation of spring break, citing Zoom fatigue and mental health issues, others saw AU’s decision as a valid one. Katherine Greenstein, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said they understood those worries, but that safety needs to come first.
“People are gonna complain about this plan, as they would with any plan, and I'm quick to criticize the administration for their choices, but I have to commend them for this one,” Greenstein said. “Getting rid of spring break is a vital step to protect people by reducing unnecessary sporadic travel, and protects immunocompromised students who may need to come to campus to complete those labs and higher-level classes.”
David Brostoff, a freshman in the School of International Service, encouraged the University to be bolder with bringing students back to campus, citing the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s strategy, which allowed tens of thousands of its students to return to campus.
However, in September, the university suffered a significant spike in cases despite constant testing of the student population. Hundreds of students tested positive in just 10 days, Bloomberg reported. The university managed to quell the outbreak; however, its COVID-19 data dashboard show.
“AU has the power — it has the resources — to welcome students back, while also implementing protocols to keep students safe and healthy,” Brostoff said. “For that reason, I am incredibly disappointed in the University’s decision.”
Catherine Green, a senior in the School of Communication, said she doesn't think AU should be attempting to hold any in-person classes next semester.
“I don't feel comfortable attending any in-person instruction,” Green said. “I would rather just be home and making sure that I'm safe, but also making sure that I'm keeping the community safe.”
Green said she thinks the decision to get rid of spring break is a mistake that will negatively impact students’ mental health.
“I don't think the staff or anybody is realizing how much of a mental weight this semester has been in the fall,” she said. “And I don't think it's going to get any better by springtime.”
While many students discussed the cancellation of spring break and the limited on-campus housing, Julieta Gomez, a graduate student in SPA, asked the University to consider the plight of international students forced to participate in online classes from around the world.
“So far, I haven't seen mention of international students on the spring plan or President Burwell's email,” Gomez said. “There are over 2,200 international students enrolled at AU who are deeply affected by this decision and the fact that they don't even acknowledge us is troubling.”
Gaspard Delaoustre, a master’s student in SPA completing this semester from his home in France, said his biggest concern with the announcement was the lack of information addressing international students and about which courses will be held in person.
“In this very long, very vague email, there was not a single mention of international students at all, which felt really disheartening because we are a part of the community as much as anyone else,” Delaoustre said.
For the fall semester, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that new international students would not be able to enter the country if they were taking only online classes. The University tweeted its plans to wait for guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to address its international students, but Delaoustre said he hopes to know whether or not he can take an in-person class before registering for classes for next semester.
If he has to take another semester fully online, he will consider taking the semester off, he said.
“If they don't make more of an effort in the future, even after spring … then I'll reconsider even being at AU because what's the point of being in a university which doesn't care about its international students?” Delaoustre said. “I mean, it would be just a waste of money, so hopefully that changes.”
AU spokesperson Lisa Stark said in an email to The Eagle that professors will work with deans to put together a preliminary list of which courses will be in-person before spring registration starts next week.
"Some of these will be partial face-to-face sections of popular multi-section courses required of students from a wide array of majors," Stark wrote. "Some of these classes will be scheduled to allow new international students to fulfill DHS’s visa stipulations, which require face-to-face courses for international students not already in the Unite[d] States."
Stark wrote that international students can apply for on-campus housing if they meet specific requirements or have "acute housing needs."
AU's spring decision follows a significant uptick in reported D.C. COVID-19 cases at the beginning of October and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s decision to extend the state of emergency in the District until the end of the year.
In addition, D.C. added eight states to its mandatory travel quarantine list on Oct. 19, bringing the total to 39 states. In July, a similar move was a deciding factor in AU’s decision to conduct the fall semester fully online.
On Oct. 21, AU announced it was canceling all spring 2021 study abroad programs that began before Feb. 6, following the cancellation of the spring and fall 2020 abroad programs. The Oct. 21 announcement said that programs starting after Feb. 6 were still under consideration and would be reviewed in early November.
The news comes after George Washington University’s decision on Oct. 9 to continue online classes for the spring semester, the GW Hatchet reported. Georgetown University is conducting a series of pilot programs to test the viability of bringing some students back to campus for the spring, its president announced on Oct. 12.
“We are going to do everything possible to make the spring successful, but we need the capacity, conditions, and cooperation to make it successful,” AU’s announcement said.
This is a developing story. More information will be added as it becomes available.