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Faculty and Staff Winter Terms Update

Dear faculty and staff,

Thank you for resiliently facing the challenges of one of the most unusual Fall terms in Northwestern history.

We have been planning for winter terms, used here to refer to both Winter Quarter and the Pritzker School of Law’s Spring Semester that start in January. We write now to share updates, including:

  • An overview of the Fall Term experience to date, and a reminder that we must continue behaviors that protect ourselves and each other.
  • Plans to welcome all first- and second-year undergraduate students to campus in the winter terms to join the existing campus cohort. We will, of course, continue to monitor the pandemic and may be forced to revise our decision if conditions or public health mandates require us to do so.
  • Amendments to our testing protocols, requiring regular testing for graduate students who are on campus in addition to the existing required testing for undergraduate students. There will also be increased testing for faculty and staff on campus, as explained below.

Fall Status

Through your diligence and persistent efforts, we have seen better health metrics and adherence to safety guidelines during Fall Term than initially projected. This outcome bolsters our decision to proceed, with caution, in bringing back all undergraduates.

For much of the Fall, our campus-wide testing positivity rate has been below 0.6%. There was a slight uptick in the last week to just below 1%. The positive cases primarily have been in small clusters of students, many resulting from off-campus social gatherings. There have been few documented cases of on-campus transmission among students, and none among students and faculty or staff.

We must continue to protect ourselves and each other, especially as COVID-19 cases rise in Evanston, Chicago and the region. Northwestern is not immune from these regional dynamics. Higher levels of local prevalence have contributed to an uptick in positive cases among graduate students, faculty, and staff.

As long as the positivity rate stabilizes and does not continue increasing, we will be able to continue to support the COVID-related needs of our community. The vast majority of you have been wearing masks, socially distancing and following protocols for testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation – thank you for all your efforts.

Winter Terms

Based on where we stand today, we will invite first- and second-year undergraduate students to campus for Winter Quarter. They will join the students who have been on campus this Fall. We will ask students to confirm their plans for the upcoming term by early December.

Our decision to bring back a larger group of undergraduate students was based on our Fall Term experience and will stand as long as it is safe to do so. We will continue to monitor data and the scenarios we are tracking.

Some additional details on what winter terms will look like:

  • All students who return to campus must adhere to all campus safety measures, daily symptom checks and ongoing testing.
  • From January 3-17, 2021, we will repeat the successful strategy from the Fall term of a modified quarantine for all faculty, staff and students called Wildcat Wellness. All classes will be remote during this period. Faculty and staff should refrain from scheduling in-person activities, except for activities necessary to support students’ return or that cannot be completed remotely.
  • On-campus residential housing continues to prioritize the health of the campus community. Undergraduate move-in will be January 4-9, while move-in for new graduate student residents will be the first two weeks of January.
  • We recognize that not all students can or want to return to campus, and we encourage them to make the best decision for themselves. Those who study remotely will be able to continue making academic progress, access services and engage in programming from afar.

While we expect that faculty and staff in-person presence will likely increase somewhat to support the increased number of students on campus, we recognize the continued need for understanding, flexibility and managing density.

  • Schools and units will be asked to reevaluate their Return-to-Campus plans and to incorporate lessons learned from the Fall term. On-campus presence in winter terms should not be lower than in the Fall, unless conditions deteriorate.
  • Faculty are encouraged to increase in-person or hybrid course offerings but retain the ability to make decisions about their course modality. We expect the majority of instruction in most schools will continue to be remote due to space constraints and in order to socially distance.
  • Staff are likewise encouraged to look for opportunities to increase their presence on campus in alignment with their school or unit’s plans. Plans should prioritize those whose presence is necessary, especially in student-serving areas, and those who are willing and eager to return to campus. Plans should continue to use staggered schedules, staff rotations and flexible hours to maintain staff presence on campus while managing density limitations.
  • We ask that managers continue to extend maximum flexibility for their staff as they balance work, care-giving responsibilities, health needs and commuting. The Alternative Work Arrangements Policy will be extended into winter terms.
  • We will continue to monitor and respond to public health indicators, which will influence our ability to increase presence on campus.

Health and Safety Procedures

The health and safety of our community continues to be our top priority. Given our decision to welcome first- and second-year undergraduates to campus, we have increased and strengthened our processes. 

These measures include:

  • For the rest of the Fall term, we are strengthening our campus mask mandate. All members of the Northwestern community are required to wear a mask indoors even if they can socially distance — except when in a private office, personal residence or residence hall room. Labs requiring other personal protective equipment will be exempted.
  • We are increasing the number and frequency of testing for our community during winter terms, so we can more accurately track the pandemic’s prevalence with a greater number of people on-campus.
    • Faculty teaching in person will be eligible to participate in regular, recurring testing.
    • Staff working on campus with high levels of student or public interaction will also be eligible to participate in regular, recurring testing.
    • Other faculty and staff regularly working on campus will be eligible for additional testing programs.
    • All undergraduates will continue to be required to test weekly whether they live on- or off-campus. Most graduate students will be required to test weekly or bi-weekly, depending on how frequently they will be on campus.
    • More details on the testing programs for Winter will follow in the coming weeks.
  • Concerns about violations of health and safety measures by faculty or staff should be reported through EthicsPoint. Concerns regarding students will be handled through the student conduct process.
  • At any time during the term, either because of on-campus quarantine and isolation capacity or other health indicators, Northwestern may reinstate Wildcat Wellness quarantine measures. After two weeks, the University would evaluate whether to resume in-person activities.

Next steps

We truly appreciate your ongoing efforts to navigate the challenges of COVID-19. Additional information will follow over the coming weeks about travel policies for the end of Fall term and the holiday season, including pre-travel testing.

The evolving nature of the pandemic means we must remain flexible. Whatever our path, it has never been more important that each of us adhere to health and safety protocols so we can build on the successes we have had so far. Thank you for your partnership as we navigate an academic year unlike any before.


Morton Schapiro
President and Professor

Kathleen Hagerty
Provost and Professor

Craig Johnson
Senior Vice President for Business and Finance 

Julie Payne-Kirchmeier
Vice President for Student Affairs