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Student Winter Terms Update

Dear students, 

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 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.

Fall Status

Through your diligence and persistent efforts we have experienced a better Fall 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 where all students participated in a modified quarantine called Wildcat Wellness. This includes an initial stage of quarantine until you receive your first negative test. After that, students can leave residences between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. for a limited number of approved activities. All meals will be delivered to on-campus residences and all classes will be remote.
  • After Wildcat Wellness ends, limited in-person activities will begin. These include a small number of classes and some student activities (including club and intramural sports). Most academic and student services will continue to be remote, though study spaces and Norris will be open.
  • The majority of instruction in most schools will continue to be remote due to space constraints and in order to socially distance. However, we are working to modestly increase the number of in-person classes. Graduate class modality will vary and programs will share information soon.

We recognize that not all students can or want to return to campus. We support your decision and encourage you to make the decision that is best for you. As in the Fall, students who study remotely will be able to make academic progress, use academic and other support services, and engage in both academic and community programming from afar. 

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. 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.
  • Students who test positive, or suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19, must quarantine or isolate according to health guidelines. Those living on campus will quarantine or isolate on campus, while those living off campus should plan to do so in their residences.
  • Violations of health and safety measures will be handled through the student conduct process.
  • At any time during the term, either due to 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.


On-campus residential housing continues to prioritize the health of the campus community. Students must follow the University’s community standards, guest policies and observe physical distancing in all shared spaces.

  • Those who currently have a housing contract will receive more information later today.
  • Those who do not have a housing contract can submit housing applications through the Housing Portal. Assignments will be made as space allows, with priority to first- and second-year undergraduates.
  • Move-in for undergraduates will be January 4-9. Move-in for new graduate student residents will occur during the first two weeks of January.
  • Students should limit the number of personal items they bring in case we need to reduce the campus population quickly during the term.
  • Fraternity and sorority houses will have the option to open for Winter with certain safety measures in place.Students holding housing contacts with fraternities, sororities and Evans Scholars must contact their organization for details, including whether cancellations are permitted.

Next steps

We truly appreciate your ongoing efforts to manage 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. Additional key dates, such as the release of class schedules and registration deadlines, are in a recent update message.

By early December, all students must have confirmed or updated their local addresses and other emergency information, reviewed and agreed to the COVID-19 student expectations, and confirmed their plans to be on campus in the upcoming term.

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