Boston University President Robert Brown announced classes would be held online from March 16 to April 13 as a result of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in an email March 11. The same day, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic, prompting BU to announce that remote learning would extend through the end of the Spring 2020 semester March 17.
In the initial March 11 announcement, students were encouraged to not return to campus if they had already departed for spring break. In the March 17 announcement, this suggestion became a plea for students to vacate their residences as soon as they could.
The university recognized the disruptions these new circumstances would cause for students, but maintained that they must put the health and safety of students, faculty and staff first.
“I recognize that this is a painful decision for all our students, who thrive on the interactions with others as part of their experience as members of the Boston University community,” Brown wrote. “I know this is especially difficult for our seniors and other candidates for graduation who undoubtedly have questions about how we will celebrate their achievements.”
As these announcements shaped what the semester would look like for students in Boston, those in study abroad programs were also receiving word of how the pandemic would affect their semester.
Executive Director of Study Abroad Gareth McFeely updated students on the severity of the impact COVID-19 would have on their programs in a series of emails. While certain programs, such as those in Shanghai, were canceled as early as Jan. 27, others, such as those in New Zealand and Australia, didn’t instruct students to return home until as late as March 17.
The forced return to the U.S. prevented many students from continuing experiences such as internships, though certain students were able to continue working remotely. This was the case for Oksana Chubrikova, a junior in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, who was studying Auckland, New Zealand.
“I’m in contact with my supervisor back in Auckland about doing some kind of remote research project,” Chubrikova said, “but I’m really in the works of trying to figure out how to continue it.”
Despite the toll COVID-19 had taken on the university’s original plans for the Spring 2020 semester, it wasn’t until March 25 that there were three confirmed cases on-campus. Two students and one staff member were confirmed to have cases of the virus, according to Colin Riley, a BU spokesperson.
At the time of this information’s release, Riley said the university had no knowledge of these cases when asking students to vacate campus a week prior. He said the university only became aware of the infections a day before the publication of a BU Today article that revealed the cases.
“When we were asking students to relocate on campus, from particular residences because they were suitable to the use of putting students in there who needed to be isolated, that activity preceded the decision to ask students to leave campus,” Riley said. “These students are in suitable facilities now, and that would be in a single bedroom with a single bathroom.”
A day after the news of the three cases came to light, the university announced they would be postponing their annual commencement ceremony to a date in the late summer or early fall. As of yet, a date has not been set.
“It’s one of those things we didn’t want to do too quickly with so much uncertainty about how things are going with the spread [of coronavirus,]” Riley said. “It also fits into a timeline within the academic year.”
Despite the uncertainty regarding the date of commencement, Brown wrote in an email to the BU community that he felt a virtual ceremony was not a “fitting substitute.” Riley also said that the university understands how integral this event is for graduates and their families, so they will work to make it possible.
“[BU] wants to make sure that the pomp and circumstance are evident and present for all of the graduates and their families. It’s a very big family event,” Riley said. “A lot of excitement, just great pride. A lot of emotion and tears and people just seeing people they’ve spent the last four years become very close to and friends and now you’re going into a new part of your life.”
The next announcement from the university about cancelations came in an email to students April 6, and it addressed summer programming. While both Summer Term sessions would be held remotely, all domestic and international trips were canceled alongside all K-12 summer programs, both on and off-campus.
Brown wrote that above all else the university wants students to return to campus in the fall, and that this decision was necessary in working towards that goal.
“Although this decision will be disappointing to many,” Brown wrote, “we believe it is necessary to achieve our ultimate goal: to return our students, staff, and faculty in the fall to our residential campus community and resume the quality in-person programs that are our hallmark as a leading private research university.”
Riley said the decision came after seeing positive feedback on this semester’s ongoing remote learning.
“We’ve been really pleased with the remote teaching [and] how well our faculty and students have adapted,” Riley said. “We thought it would be prudent to essentially make these decisions sooner than later, so that people can properly prepare.”
This also marked the first occasion of Brown addressing what has become the university’s ultimate goal: a Fall 2020 return to campus. The details surrounding how the administration would work toward this goal came on April 10 with the announcement of the COVID-19 Recovery Plan.
Jean Morrison, university provost and chief academic officer, said the plan is designed to utilize the best case scenario. She said after making the decision to use remote learning for summer sessions, she and other recovery plan contributors began detailing how they’d achieve their goal of bringing students back to campus next semester.
“Once the decision was made about Summer one and Summer two, we’ve had the time to begin the really fairly detailed planning that’s going to be necessary to successfully bring students and faculty and staff back to campus or opening in the fall,” Morrison said. “And we have kept as our highest priority in thinking about coming back in the fall, how do we do so and protect the safety of everyone in our community.”
Morrison also said that the larger public health situation and guidance from health officials will be critical in helping BU determine their course of action. However, it is because of the uncertainty surrounding public health that the university cannot predict when announcements regarding the Fall semester will be made.
“We have to follow guidance from the state around when it will be safe. So we don’t know [when we can make an announcement],” Morrison said. “But we’re in touch with a lot of public health experts who are helping to make sure that we have the most up to date modeling and information. As soon as we’re in a position to come out with dates around our plan, we are eager to do so.”
Victoria Bond and Jennifer Suryadjaja contributed to the reporting of this article.