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Phased Return to Campus Plan

Dear Northwestern faculty, staff and students, 

As we approach the end of Spring Quarter, we remain grateful for how our community has handled this exceedingly difficult time. You have shown tremendous patience and dedication, but we know that many of you are eager to hear more about how we will return to campus. 

We are writing today to update you on our plans for the immediate days ahead, as well as some measures that we plan to implement later, with the understanding that all plans are contingent on a number of factors, including the degree to which the pandemic is contained, as well as state and local orders. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible, as we know how important these decisions are to you and to the community. Going forward, you can find regular updates on our expanded COVID-19 and Campus Updates website. Please visit this site regularly for updates. 

Planning structure

Many of you have asked about how we are planning for the months ahead. Over the last several months, a group of faculty and staff from across the schools and units has been developing a plan to repopulate campus. The Return to Campus and Safety Work Group has spearheaded these efforts, with six subgroups focusing on more detailed operational elements. All groups, including a student experience planning group, are working in close alignment with the fall – and overall – planning efforts

led by the Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Business and Finance. The expanded COVID-19 and Campus Updates website will provide updates on these efforts. 

Phased return to campus following an expiration of stay-at-home orders

There is still much uncertainty regarding how our campuses will need to adapt in the months ahead. What we do know, however, is that the health and well-being of our community requires us to work together to protect one another.  Although subject to change based on prevailing conditions, we are preparing for Governor J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order to be lifted, which could happen as soon as June 1. 

In anticipation of this, we have developed a set of Core Responsibilities that will guide our return to campus strategy and approach. As noted, these depend on all of us working together to protect the health and well-being of our community, and include:

  • Social distancing
  • Use of face masks and face coverings
  • Enhanced workplace cleaning and personal hygiene practices
  • Consistent health monitoring
  • Frequent communication
  • Commitment to protecting vulnerable members of our community

We know many of you hope to return to on-campus activity soon, but we must do so in a manner that prioritizes the safety of our community – including staff, faculty, students and our neighbors. Therefore, we will take a step-by-step approach to our phased return to campus which will emphasize the health of our community by minimizing the density of campus to the extent possible in the coming months. To make that happen, it is important that you only come to campus when your school or unit permits, as outlined in the return to campus steps. For many of you, that may mean continuing to work remotely in the months ahead.

Currently we are in Step 1: Essential Only. Only faculty and staff who have been deemed essential to be onsite or engaged in essential research are working on campus today.

The next step of this return, Step 2: Pilot, occurring upon the expiration of the state’s stay-at-home order, will focus on reactivating most research laboratories and the units that support them. A more detailed announcement from Vice President for Research Milan Mrksich will follow with instructions for the research community. When you are approved to return to campus, you will be contacted by your school, unit or program leadership. Until that occurs, we expect that you will continue working, researching, teaching and learning remotely.

We all are responsible for protecting the community’s health. With that in mind, there are a number of conditions that apply before and during your return to campus:

  • Do not come to campus until you have been told it is okay to do so by your school or unit.
  • A Phased Return to Campus policy will apply to all faculty, staff and students who are returning to campus for work, class, teaching or research. Please review the policy thoroughly since complying with University policies is a condition for you to physically be on campus. 
  • All faculty and staff will be expected to complete the new “COVID-19 Phased Return to Campus Training” before they return to campus. This will be available by the end of May in myHR Learn. Faculty and staff will receive an enrollment email from myHR Learn by the end of this month. Students will receive separate guidance prior to their return.
  • You must wear face coverings and take steps to socially distance while on campus. Please review the social distancing guidance outlined on the site. 
  • Do not come to campus if you are sick or have symptoms including fever, coughing or difficulty breathing, among others. Although we hope to have testing and screening available eventually, all faculty, staff and students are responsible for monitoring their health on a daily basis. Students who are on campus should consult Health Service.

These policies and guidelines will continue to evolve as we learn from our initial phased return and as the situation around us develops. While you will be able to find the latest updates on the Phased Return to Campus COVID-19 and Campus Updates website, we will continue to keep the community apprised of major developments through University-wide communications and announcements. 

Second half of Summer term

Although we are planning to start the return to campus – beginning with our research enterprise – we know we must proceed with an abundance of caution, prioritizing the health and well-being of our community.

Previously, we announced plans for the first half of summer. After much consideration, we have decided that all Summer programming for undergraduates that is scheduled to conclude before the start of Fall, must be offered remotely, postponed or cancelled. 

Final decisions about any academic-related activities that start in August or September will be made in conjunction with decisions about Fall planning. These include orientation events and the start of classes for some graduate programs. 

Fall planning

In a perfect world, all students would return to campus, and we would resume all instruction and activities in-person like past years. The Interim Provost is chairing a Fall planning group that is evaluating scenarios for the Fall and the implications of different models. While the initial focus of this group is on Fall, we will make decisions with an eye toward the entire 2020-2021 academic year.   

Our goal is to return as much of our community to campus as possible, while continuing to protect the health of our students, faculty and staff through social distancing. Even if students and faculty may safely return to campus, some courses will be delivered remotely. We also recognize that there may be students who cannot return to campus for a variety of reasons, and we bear this in mind in our planning.

There is still significant planning to be done, and this process will include engagement across the University. We will announce our plans for Fall in the Summer and will attempt to give you as much time as possible to prepare. 

We are committed to making the best decisions for Northwestern and our community and to communicating them in an ongoing and transparent fashion. We appreciate your flexibility as Summer and Fall approach.

Wishing you continued health,


Kathleen Hagerty
Interim Provost and Professor

Craig Johnson
Senior Vice President for Business and Finance

Julie Payne-Kirchmeier
Vice President for Student Affairs

Luke Figora
Senior Associate Vice President
Chief Risk and Compliance Officer