Stanford’s return from the pandemic is likely to be gradual and measured

Campus Conversation
Presenting to the community during the Campus Conversation on Wednesday were (top row, left to right) Provost Persis Drell; President Marc Tessier-Lavigne; Yvonne “Bonnie” Maldonado, senior associate dean in the School of Medicine; (bottom row, left to right) Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine; Cheryl Brown, assistant vice provost for residential education; and Tim Stearns, senior associate vice provost of research. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Because COVID-19 still poses a threat – even as vaccines become more available – the university’s return from the pandemic is likely to be gradual and measured, according to Provost Persis Drell.

Drell spoke Wednesday at a Campus Conversation marking the one-year anniversary of the Bay Area shelter-in-place order. The Campus Conversation, which focused on the pandemic and spring quarter preparations, also included President Marc Tessier-Lavigne; epidemiologist Yvonne “Bonnie” Maldonado, senior associate dean in the School of Medicine; Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine; Cheryl Brown, assistant vice provost for residential education; and Tim Stearns, senior associate vice provost of research.

In their remarks and answers to questions, the six addressed such wide-ranging issues as increases in COVID-19 research funding, vaccine availability and comparisons, timelines for resumption of on-campus work and plans for welcoming students back to campus.

In his opening remarks, Tessier-Lavigne took the opportunity to express “horror and sorrow” over violent attacks that have recently occurred in Atlanta and that come in the context of a broader and disturbing trend of Anti-Asian racism nationwide and in the Bay Area.

The president reiterated that the Stanford community stands in support of Asian and Asian American students, scholars and staff.

Noting the one-year anniversary of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, Tessier-Lavigne also acknowledged the difficulties of the past year.

“I’m deeply grateful for your perseverance, and I’m inspired by the strength, resolve and empathy that I’ve seen firsthand within this community,” he said. “And I’m feeling optimistic, as I hope many of you are, as more people receive vaccines and infection rates continue to fall.”

Moving slowly

The university will move slowly as it eases into allowing more people on campus, Drell said. Future plans call for a “deliberate and well-executed resumption of activities.” As a result, there are likely to be few significant changes in protocols for the campus community until at least April 7, which is the end of a “restricted activity” period for undergraduates during which they will be prohibited from gathering.

“I have to say that closing the campus only took a few days. Reopening safely will take some time and effort,” she said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, and we expect that this summer will be the time for us to make preparations for fall.”

Moving forward, the university’s top priority in decision making about reopening activities will be adherence to its education and research mission, she said.

That means that as public health rules allow, the university will look to adjust density restrictions to allow researchers greater access to laboratories and offices. Instruction during spring quarter will remain mostly remote, although the university will seek ways to give faculty and students opportunities to interact informally.

Most staff members will continue to work from home since many administrative functions can be performed remotely. Spring returns will be restricted to those needed to support research and education.

On-site work

An eventual return to on-site work will be done in phases, with most decisions made at the local level within university-wide guidelines. Those policies are still under discussion, and Drell hopes to be able to share them with the campus community by the middle of spring quarter. During the summer, Drell said different work arrangements will be piloted in preparation for the fall.

“Our goal is to resume normal activities in the fall to the greatest extent possible,” she said. “Of course, there are a lot of factors that will influence this. Some are in our control, and some will be determined by the course of the pandemic and by state and county regulations.”

Drell said planning is underway for a return to arts and athletics activities, which have more flexibility to operate under the state’s most recently released rules. The reopening of arts and athletics will likely occur in a phased way in April.

The university has been working to expand gatherings for students, with preparatory work anticipated to continue in conjunction with student leaders. Unclear at this point is what increasing vaccinations will mean for relaxing protocols and safeguards. Discussions are also continuing on whether vaccinations will be required.

Caution warranted

The reasons for the university’s caution were made clear during presentations by Minor and Maldonado, who stressed that diligence is required if the region, state and country are to avoid the surges of the past.

Calling Stanford “one of the safest places around the country,” Maldonado praised members of the campus community for their adherence to safe practices, including mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

But she stressed that the nation has experienced three surges of COVID-19 in the past, each worse than the one before. Avoiding yet-another surge similar to those occurring following July 4 and the holiday season means continuing to adhere to those safety protocols.

“We have to be really careful,” she said. “We want to walk our steps back to where we were in March and then be sure not to invent that whole surge cycle again.”

Minor reported that only about 12 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated to this point. Although the average number of daily doses administered has been increasing, vaccine policies and availability vary widely from state to state.

As of March 15, Stanford Medicine had administered 161,724 vaccinations to both Stanford Health Care (SHC) workers and members of the community. He said SHC has the capacity to administer an average of 10,000 doses per day but has been hampered in achieving that goal by supply shortages.

Good news

Amid the necessary caution continuing to surround the pandemic has come some good news, however. Stearns reported that sponsored research new award funding has grown university-wide by about 10 percent, or about $125 million. Much of the increase has been driven by COVID-19-related research at the School of Medicine.

In his remarks, Stearns described the process through which research stopped at Stanford because of the pandemic, restarted and then slowly expanded. Testing has shown that there has been a low incidence of infection in the research community throughout.

Saying that the university is “back to a good place,” Stearns anticipates during the spring:

  • working to enable more field research,
  • furthering non-laboratory research and scholarship,
  • allowing increased laboratory personnel density, consistent with Santa Clara County guidelines,
  • expanding allowable human subjects research as vaccinations increase and restrictions lessen.

Brown, who besides heading Residential Education is also a resident fellow in Meier Hall, said residential staff has been working to communicate with students who plan to return to campus that conditions at Stanford might be different than those they are experiencing at home.

As a result, Brown said the Reapproaching Stanford website, which has served as a repository of pandemic information for students and their families, has resources describing how students can contribute to keeping the campus safe.

From when undergraduate students arrive until April 7, they will be restricted in their activities, including being prohibited from gathering. On April 8, however, they will be given the opportunity to form “households” with up to eight people with whom they can freely associate. Beginning April 14, if conditions continue to improve, gatherings of three households with no more than 12 students will be allowed.

After April 14, Brown said Residential Education, working with Residential & Dining Enterprises, hopes to begin allowing more options for outdoor gatherings.

During spring quarter, she said, the Row will remain closed, and most houses with resident fellows will be open.