Academic planning for the fall quarter and 2020-21 academic year

To our Stanford community,

We write to you at a moment when many challenges are pressing upon our country, and upon the lives of the members of our Stanford community. All of us continue to confront a global pandemic as well as the urgent issues of racial justice that have been laid bare once again in the last week. We want to begin by conveying our wish that you are safe and healthy, and that you reach out to the university’s many resources for support whenever they may be helpful to you.

We are writing today to share more information with you about our academic planning for the fall quarter and the rest of the 2020-21 academic year. Though our planning is not complete and some important decisions are yet to be made, the overall structure for the year ahead is coming into place, and we thought it was important to share our thinking with you as soon as possible rather than waiting until every aspect is worked out. We hope this information is helpful as you begin to prepare for next year.

As we work to resume in-person activities at Stanford, we are committed to creating an academic and residential experience that provides for the safety of our community as our top priority. We’re mindful that our main campus is located in Santa Clara County, which was one of the nation’s early hotspots for COVID-19 but then made dramatic progress in limiting its spread due to aggressive public health efforts. Our plans for the coming year must provide for the safety of students, who will travel to Stanford from all over the world, as well as the safety of our faculty and staff who interact with students.

Our planning teams have been working thoughtfully and consultatively, informed by medical professionals and public health guidance, with the aim of providing the best possible educational experience for our students while limiting the spread of disease and ensuring the support systems that will be needed when new COVID-19 cases develop. Robust processes for testing, contact tracing and isolation will be essential to have in place. We have an expert committee led by the dean of our School of Medicine, Lloyd Minor, that is developing recommendations for a university-wide plan that will guide these activities.

Three factors have particularly influenced our thinking about the coming year.

First, we want to plan for a scenario that we have a high degree of confidence we can stick to, even if COVID-19 infections increase in a second wave. Shutting down mid-quarter and sending students home would not be a desirable outcome for anyone.

Second, we know that physical distancing is critical to limiting the spread of infection, yet we also know that our classrooms and undergraduate residences do not allow for sufficient physical distancing when they are fully occupied at their regular capacity. In normal times, Stanford is fortunate to be able to provide on-campus housing for nearly all undergraduates, and this is a much-valued component of the student experience here. But providing for sufficient physical distancing in the time of COVID-19 means that we have to consider having fewer undergraduates on campus all at once. We would like to do this while still allowing all undergraduates to have the opportunity to be on campus with their peers and faculty members to the extent safely possible.

Third, if we are to continue our on-campus operations even if there is a resurgence of infections in our community, we will need to have sufficient residential space available to allow students to quarantine or self-isolate on campus.

With these and other considerations in mind, we outline below the features of the current plan that has been developed for the 2020-21 academic year. Final implementation will depend on the public health situation, and on any requirements that may be imposed by our state and county officials. We may not know those things definitively until late summer, so we encourage you to be flexible in your personal planning to the greatest extent possible.

Early start to fall quarter: Stanford will start the fall quarter one week early, on Monday, September 14, and end classes by Friday, November 20 (though some of our graduate and professional schools may adopt their own calendars). We will ask undergraduates who are on campus to depart when classes end, and final exams for all undergraduates (and most graduate students) will be held remotely the week after Thanksgiving. This will allow students who are residing on campus to travel home for Thanksgiving and remain there, rather than traveling back and forth for Thanksgiving and increasing the potential for virus spread. For students unable to leave campus due to exceptional circumstances, we will have a housing program available through the winter break, with details available later this fall.

Student residences: For 2020-21, we expect all undergraduates who are on campus to be housed in rooms that have private sleeping spaces, such as a single or a two-room double, in order to provide for sufficient physical distancing. This will reduce the total number of undergraduate housing spaces available in any one quarter; however, it will limit the risk of disease transmission between students in a multi-occupancy room and also have the important benefit of providing quieter spaces with less distraction for students engaged in online coursework, discussed further below. We will be working on the housing assignment process and will be in touch with undergraduates as that process takes shape.

For graduate students, as we have shared before, we do not expect major residential changes because our apartment-style living spaces with single-occupancy bedrooms on and off campus already provide for greater physical distancing than do most of our undergraduate residences. Some adjustments in graduate housing may be needed to support public health needs. The graduate housing lottery is currently open through June 10.

Undergraduates on campus by quarter, in a four-quarter year: In order to provide for the physical distancing needed in our classrooms and residences, and to be able to set aside sufficient housing for quarantine or self-isolation in case of a wave of infections, our default plan is to have half of our undergraduates (that is, the equivalent of two class years) back on campus for the fall quarter and each subsequent quarter, changing each quarter. It may need to be a smaller number in a given quarter if health conditions require it, which we hope will not be the case; in fact, we hope that health conditions will allow us instead to be able to expand access later in the year.

We also intend to have a four-quarter year, including the summer of 2021. Since most students take courses over three quarters, under our default scenario the four-quarter year would allow all Stanford undergraduates to complete two quarters of instruction in residence on the Stanford campus in 2020-21, and require most to complete at least one quarter remotely.

Assuming that public health conditions allow, we intend to have undergraduate first-year and transfer students among those on campus for the fall quarter, to allow them to get to know our campus, form community and begin their Stanford careers in the most positive way. We also intend to have graduating seniors on campus in the spring. Beyond that, we have not made decisions about which undergraduates would come to campus in which quarters. Our staff are having conversations with faculty and students about different options for bringing students back, whether by class year or by another rubric that aligns with the academic programs we offer. We will have a period of consultation to gather further input on these issues, and we welcome your input at We will aim to provide more information by the end of June, though again, final plans will be contingent on any requirements of state and local authorities.

In addition, we know there are many students with special circumstances. As we did during spring quarter, we are planning for a limited number of spaces for students who have a need to be on campus due to a special circumstance. Details about this will be forthcoming.

Teaching: While in-person classes will be offered on campus, much of our undergraduate teaching will still need to be done online in the 2020-21 year. Indeed, we will need to view online as the default teaching option for 2020-21, to be supplemented by in-person instruction as much as is safe and feasible for students and faculty who are present on campus.

In addition to online learning being necessary for all undergraduates who are away from campus, we do not have enough on-campus classrooms to offer all classes in person while providing for sufficient physical distancing of at least 6 feet. We expect that all classes larger than 50 students will need to be taught online, although the limits could be smaller depending on local health conditions. Class times likely will need to extend from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to make the best use of our classroom spaces. And, since some classes can only be held in person, they may need to be offered multiple times as different populations return to campus throughout the year. The provost will be in touch separately with our faculty on these issues, with deep appreciation for their work in making these adjustments for a most unusual academic year.

We will be working to make the online educational experience as engaging and enriching as possible. The rapid switch to online learning this spring left little time for instructors to redesign their courses for an online format, and the priority was ensuring that students could finish out the academic year. In preparation for next year, teaching and learning experts from across campus are making themselves available to instructors to optimize their course offerings for online delivery. We are also looking at ways to better replicate other features of in-person teaching, such as small group interactions, academic support and peer-to-peer learning.

We expect graduate and professional education to move forward at near-full capacity next year, albeit with some instruction and research conducted online. Calendars, degree requirements and academic procedures in our graduate and professional programs vary, and students should follow the guidance that will be provided by your school or department.

Campus life: It’s also important to be upfront about what we expect in terms of campus life while COVID-19 continues to be a factor in our lives. It’s likely that students will need to wear face coverings regularly while on campus. Physical distancing protocols will be in place for our campus buildings and common spaces. We expect limitations on gatherings. And, we’ll likely ask students not to travel outside the local area while they are enrolled on campus, or otherwise to self-isolate upon their return.

For our incoming first-year undergraduates, we know this is not how you originally envisioned beginning your college career. But we will work to make the coming year as rich and rewarding an experience as possible within the constraints of this unusual time we are living through. If, upon reflection, you choose to take a gap year rather than enrolling this fall, please let the admissions office know by June 15. Also, please be aware that you will need to enroll at Stanford for your entire first year, not for individual quarters alone. (The Leave of Absence process will continue to be available for previously enrolled students who wish to use it.)

We hope this information is helpful for your planning. You will have more questions, certainly, and we will be in touch with additional information as it becomes available. Thank you, once again, for the incredible flexibility, perseverance and care for others that you have shown as members (or incoming members!) of the Stanford community. We look forward to seeing you again, back on The Farm, just as soon as possible.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Persis Drell