Even with COVID-19 infections reaching ever-higher numbers here and across the country, Northwestern University yesterday invited freshmen and sophomores to come to campus in January. They would join the juniors and seniors who have been attending classes here – some remotely and some in-person – during the fall term.

The invitation is conditional, depending on public health mandates, and the decision will “stand as long as it is safe to do so,” University officials wrote in a letter to students.

The Oct. 28 letter from Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, Provost Kathleen Hagerty, Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Craig Johnson and Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier thanked students for “resiliently facing the challenges of one of the most unusual fall terms in Northwestern history.”

The letter outlined plans for the undergraduate winter quarter and the law school’s spring semester, both of which start in January, 2021. The University is planning “to welcome all first- and second-year undergraduate students to campus in the winter terms to join the existing campus cohort,” the letter said, adding, “We will, of course, continue to monitor the pandemic and may be forced to revise our decision if conditions or public health mandates require us to do so.”

The fall term at Northwestern was “better than initially projected, the letter said, and “This outcome bolsters our decision to proceed, with caution, in bringing back all undergraduates.”

Amended protocols include regular testing of graduate students on campus in addition to the current required testing for undergraduate students.

The letter continued, “For much of the fall, our campus-wide testing positivity rate has been below 0.6%. There was a slight uptick in the last week to just below 1%. The positive cases primarily have been in small clusters of students, many resulting from off-campus social gatherings. There have been few documented cases of on-campus transmission among students, and none among students and faculty or staff.”

Students returning to campus will be required to adhere to the University’s protocols and safety measures, such as daily symptom checks and ongoing testing.

Initially, that is from Jan. 3 to 17, students will participate in Wildcat Wellness, a modified quarantine. Students who receive a first negative test will be allowed to leave residences between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. for “a limited number of approved activities.” Classes will be remote, and meals will be delivered to on-campus residences.

At the end of the Wildcat Wellness period, limited in-person activities – some classes and some student activities, such as club and intramural sports – will begin. Norris Center will be open, though most student services and academics will be remote.

Gearing up for the arrival of the younger students, Northwestern is intensifying its mask mandate and increasing the frequency and numbers of testing. Some of the other mandates follow:

  • ·         All members of the Northwestern community are required to wear a mask indoors even if they can socially distance — except when in a private office, personal residence or residence hall room. Labs requiring other personal protective equipment will be exempted.
  • ·         All undergraduates will continue to be required to test weekly whether they live on- or off-campus. Most graduate students will be required to test weekly or bi-weekly, depending on how frequently they will be on campus.
  • ·         Students who test positive, or suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19, must quarantine or isolate according to health guidelines. Those living on campus will quarantine or isolate on campus, while those living off campus should plan to do so in their residences, quarantine or isolate on campus
  • ·         Violations of health and safety measures will be handled through the student conduct process.
  • ·         At any time during the term, either due to on-campus quarantine and isolation capacity or other health indicators, Northwestern may reinstate Wildcat Wellness quarantine measures. After two weeks, the University would evaluate whether to resume in-person activities.
  • ·         Students should limit the number of personal items they bring in case we need to reduce the campus population quickly during the term. 
  • ·         By early December, all students must have confirmed or updated their local addresses and other emergency information, reviewed and agreed to the COVID-19 student expectations, and confirmed their plans to be on campus in the upcoming term.

The letter concluded, “The evolving nature of the pandemic means we must remain flexible. Whatever our path, it has never been more important that each of us adhere to health and safety protocols, so we can build on the successes we have had so far.”