Dear Duke Students and Families,

As we continue to prepare for the 2020-21 academic year—a year that will be unlike any other in Duke’s history—I want to provide you with an update and further direction on our planning. As it has from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety of our faculty, staff, students and the Durham community is our paramount priority and will always drive decisions.

Across the university, many faculty, staff and students are working around the clock to continue our core missions of education, research, patient care, and service with the excellence that characterizes Duke.  Already we have reopened—deliberately, thoughtfully and safely—numerous research laboratories and clinical practices, bringing several thousand faculty, staff and graduate students back to campus with new safety practices, and we are learning every day from their experience.  We have also been in contact with many students over the last several months to understand their interests and concerns during this challenging time, and we’ll be consulting regularly with a wide cross-section of students as we move towards the fall.

We are still on track to decide many details about the upcoming academic year by the end of June. Let me tell you where we are now:

Our goal is to enable as many of our students who are able and who choose to participate in an on-campus experience for the fall semester to do so, but only if it can be done safely.  We are fortunate to have, in Duke Health, the resources of a world-leading academic medical center to help guide and support our university community.  As our faculty and academic leaders collaborate to prepare a dynamic and flexible educational experience, we are working with medical and public health experts, as well as with specialists in residential and classroom facilities, food service and environmental health and safety to reinvent our living and learning spaces and adapt to the new realities that we will confront in all aspects of our lives.  I will describe some of those details below.

Our academic calendar will change to maximize our time on campus, and to minimize the disruptions and potential health hazards of travel during the semester. Fall semester classes for undergraduates will begin a week earlier than originally planned, on Monday, August 17, and final exams will conclude before Thanksgiving.  We expect the arrival of residential students to be staggered over several days before the start of classes. There will not be a Fall Break in 2020.  The spring semester will begin a week later than normal, on Tuesday, January 19, and final exams will be held the week of April 26. Commencement for the Class of 2021 will take place on Sunday, May 9.  There will be no Spring Break in 2021. More information on course registration and re-registration, and housing assignments will be available by the end of June.

First-year undergraduate students will receive additional information on move-in and orientation programs, which are being developed now.  Orientation will include online programming prior to  students’ arrival on campus, which we now expect will take place over several days during the week of August 10.  Final details will be provided by the end of June.

Graduate and professional schools will operate on calendars specific to their needs, and students will be notified about the schedules directly by their schools.

Assuming students will be on campus, all Duke courses will be offered in one of three formats: in-person instruction conducted in classrooms on the Duke campus, fully online courses that take advantage of the best pedagogy and technology available for remote education, and hybrid courses that involve some combination of in-person and online instruction.  Students who are on campus can expect their courses to be taught in both in-person and online modes.  Students who cannot or who do not wish to be on campus, or who have to be quarantined or return home will still be able to engage in a full curriculum of courses and make progress toward their degrees.  To this end, all in-person classes will also have the necessary online components.

Our faculty, too, is making the transition to this new environment, and we have engaged experts in digital learning to ensure that faculty have the best guidance in developing and presenting their courses, whether they are in the front of a newly-configured classroom or teaching online.  In addition, courses that include labs, performances, travel, and other unique requirements will be revised to accommodate protocols for physical distancing and online access, though we recognize that might not be possible in all situations. We are also looking to create special “immersion” periods when students might come to campus to complete lab, or lab-type, components of courses.

To do all this safely and successfully, we all must make significant changes to the way we live, study, and work, and we are reconfiguring residential and classroom facilities to make it possible.  Success will only be achieved if all members of the Duke community do their part—which will call upon extraordinary mutual support, clearly articulated behavioral norms, and an unshakable personal commitment. To this end, we expect that all members of our university community will enter into a compact, the Duke Compact, that recognizes our shared responsibility for our collective health and well-being. Committing to the Duke Compact means we care enough about each other to comply with new policies and protocols. These are under careful development, and final policies and protocols will align with the latest and most reliable scientific information, experience, and local, state, and federal guidelines.  At this point, we expect practices along the following lines:

  • All members of the Duke community—faculty, students, staff, and visitors—will be required to wear masks in classroom and public settings and practice physical distancing as mandated by local law and university policy.
  • Robust and wide-ranging testing systems will be in place. All students living on campus will be tested for COVID-19 before they are permitted to begin classes.
  • All students will complete daily health checks through a monitoring app and report concerning symptoms to the Student Health and Wellness.
  • All students living in on-campus or off-campus housing will be expected to remain in the Durham area during the semester.
  • All students who report symptoms will have to follow the testing, contact tracing, and quarantine protocols established by Duke, Durham County, and the State of North Carolina should they become ill or exposed to COVID-19.
  • While many co-curricular and extra-curricular activities (lectures, performances, club activities,  events) will be held virtually, there will be opportunities for in-person gatherings that meet university and public health guidelines.
  • On-campus dining centers will provide expanded take-out options and limited in-person service using reservation systems.
  • Access to campus facilities by students, faculty, staff, and visitors will be restricted and new guidelines on space configuration, capacity, traffic flow, cleaning, and sanitation protocols will be in place.

Perhaps more than ever before in our lifetimes, the actions of one member of our community can have catastrophic implications for all.  Thus, we will take these commitments seriously at all levels.  For students, failure to adhere to these guidelines could be grounds for disciplinary and other actions necessary to protect the health and safety of the Duke community.

We remain steadfastly committed to inclusivity, and for its sake, to flexibility. Students who choose not to participate in the on-campus experience in 2020-2021 – or who are unable to be physically in Durham due to travel restrictions, personal circumstances, or family obligations – are assured that we will make every effort to support their continued learning and engagement in campus life while remote.  Our experience this spring has been instructive in many ways, and we will build on this unplanned shift to develop sophisticated, high quality remote learning experiences for all Duke students.

Finally, and it bears repeating, all of this is subject to change based on public health guidance, medical advice, local conditions and laws, and variables that may not even be known to us today.  Such is the nature of life in and after a pandemic.

Regardless of the circumstances, I know we will get through this.  It won’t look easy, and it won’t look anything like we’re used to experienceing.   But we’ll get through it because our people – students, faculty, staff, families and friends – are thoughtful, collaborative, creative, adaptable, and committed to excellence. We will get through it because we are Duke.

I so look forward to seeing many of you on campus, in all the familiar places and, for members of the class of 2024, in your new and sometimes bewildering home. In the meantime, stay tuned to your email and Duke websites for more information and updates. And please accept my very best wishes for your health and safety and the start of what will be an unforgettable summer.


Vincent E. Price