Stanford University will allow juniors and seniors to come back to campus in late March, an announcement that signals administrators' optimism about local public health conditions and the university's ability to control the spread of the coronavirus.
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell announced the decision on Thursday, which will allow juniors and seniors who want to live at Stanford starting in the spring quarter that begins March 29, but still primarily attend classes online and have limited social gatherings.
The university's top leaders cited modeling by experts from the Stanford School of Medicine that suggests the trajectory of COVID-19 this spring is "likely to be manageable," and testing and response protocols have been "highly effective in limiting community spread."
The modeling indicates that California could "see a leveling off in infections in the early spring, or, if there is rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, a small increase that is expected to be followed by a decline later in the spring," they said. "Only in an unlikely worst-case scenario — with uncontrolled variant spread and reduced adherence to public health protocols such as mask wearing — would infections be expected to return to the level that we saw in early January, according to the School of Medicine's modeling."
They feel hopeful, with Santa Clara County on the verge of moving into the less restrictive red tier, that they can safely offer more campus activities, both academic and social, in the spring, such as gatherings with "households" of up to eight people and classes or academic activities taught outdoors, if professors choose to.
Large gatherings will still be prohibited and commencement is taking place virtually.
"Though we expect some gatherings to be possible, campus life still will be far less vibrant than students would experience in normal times," Tessier-Lavigne and Drell said. "All juniors and seniors should consider these factors before making a final decision to come to campus."
All undergraduate students living in campus housing will have a private sleeping space. Newly arriving undergraduates will be required to be tested twice for COVID-19 when they arrive — and provided with an isolation space if they test positive — and then twice a week while living on Stanford grounds. Anyone who doesn't comply with the testing mandate will lose access to campus buildings other than their residence. Employees working at Stanford are required to be tested weekly for COVID-19 and the university is also providing weekly testing for employees of contract firms working in custodial, security and child care services on campus.
"Our testing protocols were very effective in identifying and quickly isolating COVID-positive cases as students arrived at the beginning of the winter quarter," Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote. "And, thanks to our robust contact tracing and quarantine systems for close contacts of infected individuals, we saw almost no community spread during winter quarter as a whole."
Currently, more than 6,600 students live on Stanford, including about 5,100 graduate students and 1,500 undergraduate students who were approved to live on campus due to special circumstances.
Since August, 183 Stanford students have tested positive for COVID-19 — an overall positivity rate of 0.12% — and 157 faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars, an 0.18% positivity rate, according to an online dashboard.
As of Thursday, 1,300 juniors and seniors have applied for campus housing in the spring quarter.
All undergraduate students, both new and returning, will have to comply with restrictions at the beginning of the spring quarter, similar to a "travel quarantine" that Stanford had in place at the beginning of the winter quarter. During this time, students can only leave their residences for COVID-19 testing, medical care, to pick up meals and to exercise outdoors by themselves.
Acknowledging concerns that juniors and seniors won't comply with public health protocols, Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote: "We have a higher expectation; we believe the vast majority of Stanford students, and hopefully all, will engage in responsible behaviors."
Stanford still plans to allow freshmen and sophomores to live on campus for the summer quarter, public health conditions permitting.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.