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Update on Duquesne University Planning for Fall Semester 2020

Update on Duquesne University Planning for Fall Semester 2020

Dear admitted Duquesne students and families,

I know you’re anxious to learn about our plans for the upcoming fall 2020 semester and academic year at Duquesne University, in light of the current health crisis facing our nation. Let me begin by saying that we intend to return to campus in the fall, to the greatest extent prudent and permissible, for the new academic year. Our plan is to begin classes as scheduled on Monday, August 24, 2020.

We are keenly aware that members of the entering freshman class require special attention this year, as they begin their college experience at Duquesne, particularly after enduring a senior year in high school that was severely disrupted by the coronavirus. For that reason, we are taking a number of extraordinary steps to acclimate and assist our freshmen.

First, we are assigning an individual mentor to each freshman. These mentors will be upper-class students (sophomores, juniors, or seniors) associated with the Orientation team, Residence Life assistants and Commuter Affairs assistants. The mentors will work with incoming students even before they arrive, help to develop a network for them, and work with them throughout the year to address any unplanned disruptions (such as having to move to online courses  unexpectedly).

As well, orientation activities will be expanded so that there are additional in-person and virtual opportunities for freshmen to meet in small groups, get to know their classmates and prepare for their new college experience. We also intend to ramp up opportunities relating to student activities, well-being outreach and academic advising for freshmen, so that they develop necessary bonds and connections immediately that will carry them through the academic year no matter what occurs.

Finally, we will increase opportunities for new students to interact with their faculty members and teaching assistants. This will give all Duquesne freshman as many points of connection and the greatest sense of community possible, allowing them to weather any challenges and surmount them in a positive and creative way.

We recognize that providing an opportunity for our students to interact with fellow students, develop friendships, engage in student activities and develop bonds with faculty members is a special piece of the educational experience. It has been central to our existence at Duquesne University for 142 years. We therefore intend to develop and nurture these personal interactions to the greatest extent practicable.

Of course, none of us has a crystal ball. We do not know how much the virus will be mitigated by August, or what parameters health experts and government officials (including the Governor of Pennsylvania, the Mayor of Pittsburgh and the Chief Executive of Allegheny County) will place upon colleges and universities. But there are hopeful signs.

Western Pennsylvania has fortunately been relatively low in terms of numbers of coronavirus cases. Just last week Pennsylvania began the careful process of reopening, and Governor Tom Wolf designated Allegheny County as “yellow,” allowing our region to take small steps toward opening. We are optimistic, given current modelling, that the virus will have abated sufficiently to permit some version of on-campus classes and residential housing in the fall, as long as appropriate modifications are made to ensure social distancing, enhanced hygiene measures, de-densifying in common spaces, testing, contact tracing, etc.

My leadership team and I therefore have been working around-the-clock to create multiple, “movable” contingency pieces that can be moved in and out quickly, so that we are prepared for any scenario as the new academic year arrives.

Our guiding principles are simple. The health, safety and well-being of our students is our highest priority. We also want to ensure our students’ academic continuity, so there is no disruption of their ability to achieve their academic goals and earn their degrees. Additionally, we are intent on fostering ongoing social interactions and community building among our students, even as guidelines and restrictions are created by government and health officials to deal responsibly with this unprecedented pandemic.

We must remain nimble. With the help of my leadership team and experts on campus, we are creating a master plan that is as flexible as possible. It will allow Duquesne University and its students to move seamlessly into and out of any situation that emerges in the months ahead, regardless of what parameters are placed on us by health and government officials. Once our plan is in place, I will share more of its specific details in a communication to you sometime in June.

The exact trajectory of future events, of course, is impossible for any institution of higher education to predict. The development of rapid testing, treatment and/or a vaccine for the virus could change the situation positively. Conversely, a spike in cases could slow down openings. Governmental guidance, informed by science and data, regarding parameters for in-person classes and on-campus living will likely be forthcoming soon. For that reason, we are building an infrastructure that will allow us to pivot into different modes of educational delivery, if necessary, whether at the beginning or in the middle of the semester. Essentially, our “movable pieces” are built around three possible scenarios:

  1. Scenario #1: On-campus classes and housing are permitted, so long as modified to protect the health and safety of students and employees, as guided by CDC directives, governmental protocols, etc. (For students who have underlying health issues or otherwise have concerns about in-person activities, online instruction and student support options will always be available under any scenario).

  2. Scenario #2: Blended in-person and online classes, and scaled-back on-campus housing, are recommended, in order to de-densify for health and safety purposes, at least for a period of time in the academic year.

  3. Scenario #3: Fully online instruction is required for a period of the academic year, if the virus recurs and the government orders another period of shut-downs. Under this scenario, which we hope is less likely, we would have the ability to move quickly and seamlessly back to campus as soon as health concerns abate.

Photo of model scenarios

Presently, I have created seven different Task Forces comprising experts from our Duquesne University faculty and staff, who are working on every aspect of this masterplan. These seven Task Forces are: Health and Safety Protocols; Academic Affairs and Online Learning; Housing and Auxiliary Services; Student Success; Athletic Programs; Finance and Budget; and Faculty/Staff Re-Entry.

As I work with these Task Forces and my leadership team to complete our flexible plan, I’ve continued to underscore that we will employ the same care, prudence, foresight and data-driven analysis as we did when this health crisis first struck in March. At that time, thanks to the impressive efforts of many people at the University, we were able to provide necessary services for our students, both academically and relating to wellness and community. Similarly, using what we now know as we plan for the fall, we are confident that Duquesne’s academic experience will continue whatever comes our way. We expect more guidance from state and local officials in the next few weeks. We will keep you updated as soon as our plans solidify based upon those instructions.

We recognize that the rich experience of a Duquesne University education is more than just checking off courses on a list of academic requirements. And it’s more than what happens in a single semester. It involves being part of a long-term community; building friendships and relationships; developing a set of core values that includes ethics and a keen sense of responsibility to others; and learning how to collaborate with peers and build life-long leadership skills. This is particularly true for many freshmen, who are taking the first step in an academic journey that will be sacred and precious forever.

A pandemic can, and will, disrupt some aspects of learning for a finite period of time. But these disruptions will pass as medicine and science find ways to control the virus. In the meantime, the sense of community and family that exists at Duquesne University will continue, despite these temporary obstacles, and last a lifetime.

This year had some unprecedented lessons, and so we are stronger, more resilient, and better prepared for anything that lies ahead. We plan to ramp up opportunities relating to student activities, well-being outreach, academic support, and career services outreach to give all Duquesne students as many points of connection and the greatest sense of community possible. This will not only allow us to weather any challenges, but to surmount them in a creative way.

We look forward, very much, to seeing you in the fall semester – hopefully in person – as we work together to serve as models for other institutions and the entire nation. If you have any questions at all, you should reach out to our Admissions team at admissions@duq.edu or 800.456.0590.

We thank you for your patience, kindness and spirit of resolve, in the face of these current challenges. It has truly been inspirational.

I hope that you, your families, loved ones and friends stay safe and healthy in the weeks ahead. I will report back as soon as we have additional information to share.

Warm regards,

Ken Gormley