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Message from Provost Cyril Clarke: In-Person Instruction for Spring 2021

Dear faculty and department heads:

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this calendar year, we decided that the wisest approach to designing course instruction for the fall semester was to place responsibility in the hands of faculty for deciding whether courses should be delivered online, in-person, or using a hybrid approach that employed in-person instruction to facilitate experiential learning. The outcome of this plan was a semester that is largely being delivered online, with 30% of the courses offered in hybrid format and 6% fully in-person. In accordance with guidance received from faculty leadership, our goal was to make progress during the fall towards resuming in-person instruction later this academic year. This approach has served Virginia Tech well and I am very grateful for the commitment of faculty, instructional staff, and graduate students whose assistance has allowed us to deliver a curriculum that enables our students to make academic progress.

Our experience with in-person learning to date demonstrates our ability to deliver the curriculum in a manner that effectively mitigates the health safety risk posed by COVID-19. While I acknowledge our concern about the recent increased infection rates across the US, the situation on our campus is stable due in large part to the commitment of our campus community to following public health and safety measures. Based on prevalence testing of undergraduate students on and off campus, and testing of high-risk employees and graduate students, as well as rates of symptomatic infections, our university community is managing spread of infection well. Public health officials serving the New River Health District have confirmed that there is little to no evidence of spread of infection between students and the Blacksburg community nor between students and university employees. Instructional spaces are amongst the safest due largely to a high level of compliance with public health measures such as the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing, and disinfection.

Looking ahead to the spring semester, it is important that we continue to do our best to make progress in expanding opportunities for in-person instruction. Unless the university and our community experience a resurgence of COVID-19, in which case our current plans will be adapted, we must work towards a goal of offering more face-to-face or hybrid instruction in the spring than is being delivered this fall. I believe that success in achieving this goal will enhance the quality of our instruction, engage students in their learning, and underscore the relevancy of their residential experience.

Current estimates of the proportions of in-person or hybrid instruction planned for the spring are slightly lower than those for this fall. Clearly, this does not align with our commitment to make progress in advancing in-person learning. To make certain that we are fully exploring opportunities to deliver in-person or hybrid instruction, I am asking faculty and their department heads to review preliminary course plans and to consider whether in-person instruction can be increased in situations where health safety risk can be mitigated. In particular, faculty teaching courses or sections that have no more than 25 students enrolled and those teaching courses that include laboratories or field experiences are asked to discuss with their department heads the feasibility of in-person instruction if these courses are currently planned for online delivery.

If there are particular circumstances that can be addressed to improve health safety related to support for classroom assignment, setup, and capacity, we have created a Google form where you may share those requests. For courses that will remain online and that are currently planned for asynchronous delivery, please consider converting these to synchronous delivery. While there may be special justification for asynchronous delivery of some of these courses, students have made clear their preference for formats that allow interactions with professors in real time.

Course request opened yesterday and students are being informed that the preliminary course modalities are subject to change during the next several weeks as faculty finalize their decisions. I recognize that I am asking you to review preliminary plans in an expedited manner when you already have much to do, but this is an important issue. Providing in-person learning opportunities to the greatest extent possible continues to be our commitment and is critical to the success and well-being of our students.

Thank you for working with your college leaders and the Provost’s Office to optimize the educational experiences of our students in the spring.