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Answering your initial questions after Duke suspends classes due to COVID-19

Editor's Note: For a more up-to-date FAQ guide to your questions about Duke's coronavirus response, please read our guide here.

After the University announced yesterday that classes will move online, spring break will be extended by a week and students should not return to campus due to the coronavirus spread, the Duke community had many questions. Editor-in-chief Jake Satisky spoke to Duke's spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs government relations, to try to get some of those questions answered. If you have questions or tips for The Chronicle about the situation, please ask them here.

This nearly 40-minute interview has been organized by pertinent topics. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Stay tuned to The Chronicle for more updates, and sign up for our newsletter for news delivered to your inbox to keep you up-to-date.

The Chronicle: I just wanted to get some sort of knee jerk questions sort of out of the way. I know that y'all probably don't have answers to everything, because the announcement was yesterday.

Michael Schoenfeld: I'll say at the outset that the answers to a lot of these questions are going to be, 'We don't know yet. And we're going to—but we're going to continue to refine that.' So, it's just the nature, the unprecedented nature, of this situation that means that we're either going to have to come up with answers to questions that we couldn't have conceived of 24 hours ago, or we're just not ready or in a position to offer clarity to something that we know a lot of people want clarity for.

TC: Makes sense. I assume that's kind of why spring break was extended for a week.

MS: Yes. So as you have probably seen this has become that this went from being the unthinkable to now a fairly almost standard practice at many universities. The guidance from public health officials and from public health experts is that one of the more effective ways to limit exposure to COVID-19 is to limit, to the extent possible, gatherings where people are in close proximity for large parts of the day, coming from all over the place. So that's why you have seen what you saw early on: some of the travel restrictions and limitations on access.

Given that, at least in Duke's case, thousands of students have been around the country and around the world, we believed, as in many other universities, that it was prudent to limit that access back to the campus as a safety measure, and to keep that up right now, until further notice. I can't tell you when that further notice is going to be, but it's something that we're evaluating on a very frequent basis.

On campus

TC: So, that's actually my first question—was this decision made because of the fear of students coming back? There isn't anyone in the medical center or in the Duke community who has tested positive, is there?

MS: There is nobody at Duke or in the Duke community that has tested positive. You know, I want to caution that any news or any information about individual patients or this would come from the state, but there is nobody within the Duke community that we are aware of that has tested positive. What you see increasingly, especially at colleges and universities, is deep concern even about individuals who have been exposed.

TC: Is there anyone in the medical center or the hospital?

MS: You'd have to talk to the hospital about that. I can't talk about patients.

TC: So what qualifies students to be allowed to stay on campus?

MS: Student Affairs is working on a process for registration. In general, it will be those students who don't have other options, who can't go home. So that would be international students, that would be students who are fully emancipated or who have other individual or specific circumstances. Again, Student Affairs is working on the criteria process for this, but the strong presumption is that there will need to be a very specific reason a residential student has to live on campus and can't go home.

TC: Where will students stay if they're allowed to stay on campus? In their dorm?

MS: There are no plans at the moment to move students to a different room or to specifically close dorms, so at the moment those who are permitted to stay on on campus and return to campus would go back to their regular place.

TC: For people who return to campus, if there's a credible fear they came from a spot where there's a lot of coronavirus, or they're nervous that they have it, will there still be these self-quarantine plans in place?

MS: So all of the self quarantine guidance that has been published still holds. You know, if you come back from Italy, you're going to have to quarantine. So that all still holds. All of the already-published self-quarantine guidance still holds. If there is a confirmed exposure or some other medical reason to implement a quarantine for a student living on campus, as you know, we have the facility prepared for that.

TC: A lot of students are nervous that they don't have their stuff, that it's stuck in their dorm rooms. Is there a way Duke's going to let people come on campus to get their stuff?

MS: Yes. Student Affairs is working on the guidance for that. Should should have that out today.

TC: So I assume the recruitment weekends like Black Student Alliance Invitational and Latino Student Recruitment Weekend will be canceled?

MS: Yes. Recruitment weekends are canceled. Blue Devil Days are canceled. There is a Blue Devil Days scheduled for April 21, I believe. Again, we will assess that as we go forward. We're not accepting registrations for that, but it is something that will be monitored. Reunions are canceled. The admissions tours and information sessions are canceled. So, whatever it is, assume that it's canceled.

TC: Will there be any RAs expected to stay on campus, or just like the RAs that have to stay on campus will just be RAs?

MS: That's being developed right now. There will be RAs. I don't have the specifics yet on how they will be deployed, but there will be there RAs. There will be adults on campus. To be clear, Duke is not closed. We're not locked down. We're not shutting down. We're not winding things down. But we have implemented, and we are giving strong guidance that essentially the campus is not a social or gathering space. So for those students who will be either remaining on campus, or have to be here for any of the circumstances that I mentioned before, obviously, there will be food service and other things. But it will not be a full schedule. It will not be a full menu.

TC: Do you have any more details about dining accommodations for students?

MS: When you say dining accommodations, I mean, obviously, there will be food service available. The specific time, location, other things is just being developed today.

TC: Okay. For students who need access to libraries for their thesis or for their work, especially grad students or seniors doing Ph.D. work or thesis work, how will that work?

MS: The library will continue to be open but, like many things, access will be limited. Hours may change. It will likely be similar to the weekend, overnight and and break-period access, so card access only to the library. Certain services may not be immediately available. Again, standard answer: Those policies and directions are being—I mean, you can see the complexity of all of this—are being are being developed and will be available shortly. You know,for the next couple of days, we will be very much in a transition mode. A lot of these things are going to take effect over the weekend, and then going forward after that.

TC: If there's any packages that are at the Duke post office, is it possible for those to get mailed or transferred elsewhere?

MS: That'll be part of the transition plan that's being developed.

TC: I don't know how much you know about student athletes and athletics. We'll be talking to athletics too. But will student athletes stay on campus for spring sports?

MS: If student athletes are away from campus on spring break, they will come back, register, go through the registration policy, and yes they will be on campus, so for those students who are in in-season sports. Yeah sure if you've got in season sports, you've qualified for NCAA postseason competition, then you come back. If you're if you're in in-season spring sports, then yes, those student athletes will come back to campus and register with with Student Affairs. If you're a student athlete who's not in a current sport, then the guidance would be the same as for any other student.

Will students come back?

TC: I know it's hard to predict, but is Duke hoping to still hold graduation?

MS: I don't think it would be wise for anybody to make predictions in either direction, you know, right now we have established April 20 as sort of our line for events and activities. But we're in uncharted territory. It's certainly our hope and our plan that we would hold graduation, but at the same time this is a rapidly moving, rapidly evolving situation. And the University has experts in every level that are monitoring it very closely, and first and foremost, we'll make decisions that are based on protecting the health and safety of the community. So I know that may be an indirect answer, but we are hoping for it, planning for it, but we're also going to be realistic as we monitor the situation over the course of the next two months. I don't want to make a prediction about what's going to happen too much.

TC: So that April 20 cutoff that you mentioned, that's sort of the—right now it seems like you're saying—next evaluation point. How will that work exactly?

MS: We're evaluating the situation and the circumstances literally on an hourly basis because there is something that's changing. Certainly before April 20, we will have enough information to make decisions about what needs to be done after that. So we had to set a line for planning purposes and the line right now is April 20, I suspect. 

What is it, March 11 now? So, I suspect that over time, probably multiple times over the next six weeks, we will be in a position to evaluate and make decisions about what's going forward. A huge amount of that will depend on the guidance from public health experts, the guidance from infectious disease experts, the policies that are directed by local government, by state government, by federal government. Again, we're trying to manage as much as we can manage ourselves, but there are a lot of things happening and a lot of things moving, and there may be a circumstance in which some things are out of our hands as an institution. Hope we don't get there, for sure. We all have to be very, very flexible to be able to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Getting home

TC: Will Duke offer assistance for people who maybe made flight plans to return to RDU but now need to fly home? Will Duke offer financial aid for that?

MS: Our understanding is that all of the airlines now have a very flexible change policy. So, we're going to direct people in the first instance to the airlines. If you booked a flight from Miami to RDU and you now need to go from Miami to Chicago, there may be delays, and there have been obviously significant schedule changes. But we understand as far as costs and penalties and all that, those have been waived.

TC: If students absolutely can't, I assume most students will be able to change their flight plans and all that. But what if students are not, and they need assistance?

MS: We will obviously work with—there's a more specific policy being developed. Obviously, the University will work with every student to make sure that they're in a position to get through this.


TC: Is there a plan in place, being developed for students who do not have reliable Wi-Fi or computer access at their home or hometown?

MS: Yeah, so there is actually a really interesting team that's been working pretty much nonstop for the last 48 hours from OIT, from Learning Innovation. For many of the schools that are working on a range of options for faculty to teach, to do remote instruction. So there won't be a single platform, there won't be a single format. There'll be a wide range of accommodations that faculty are going to be making. Some people are already very comfortable and skilled at teaching an online class. Others, in a seminar, that may take the form of a conference call, readings, more directives or papers. So there'll be a wide range of formats. The goal is to have the maximum number of students be able to access the maximum number of classes. You know we have 6,300 classes this semester taught by 1,500 people, by 1,500 faculty. So you can imagine. There will be a very wide range of accommodations.

We do have one thing that is valuable. First, we had the experience with DKU, a month ago, in which we basically stood up—we being Duke and DKU and our very talented team here—a virtual university in a very short time. That's actually served us very, very well. Because of the protocols, the policies, the processes, the technology systems, we had the first version of the manual written already. So that's been very helpful and that that information is starting to go out today. And there will continue to be guidance and training and et cetera for the faculty. 

Second, we actually do have several schools that already have fairly significant online-education programs. The Fuqua School of Business was one of the early leaders 20 years ago in adopting distance education. The School of Nursing already has a very extensive online program. Pratt through its graduate programs. The Nicholas school through its graduate program. 

So while we have not entered this space directly with undergraduate classes, we actually have a lot of people, and a lot of expertise here that's worthwhile. So, there will certainly be bumps in the road. There will absolutely be hiccups. And trying to mount this at scale presents enormous challenges, but we'll work through as many as we can.

TC: You mentioned the Learning Innovation team?

MS: I will add that that's the long-standing unit within Duke that works with faculty on online courses and delivery and learning technology and things like that. But on this effort that team has been increased with contributions from each of the schools. Every one of our schools has a learning innovation, learning technology team. Some are much more advanced than others in terms of the extent to which that technology is deployed. We have a hugely talented team within OIT that has been working on this for not just years but for decades. So Duke has mobilized, I think, a very talented, and as we saw with the DKU experience, very creative and energized and energetic team of people to work on this.

How the decision was made

TC: When exactly was this decision made, then?

MS: This has been under review and under development for, I'd say, the last four or five days—again as things have moved very rapidly in the state of North Carolina. Most importantly, we're looking at local conditions. So, you know what's happening in the state of North Carolina, you probably saw yesterday the governor declared a state of emergency. There was considerable activity locally here in the triangle, regionally and then nationally. And we have been working on various contingency plans for a while settled on this, in terms of the process, the set of policies that were sent out last night had consultation with the deans, had consultation with the Executive Committee, the Academic Council, consultation with the Board of Trustees and received very strong encouragement and endorsement from all of those bodies to proceed in the direction that we proceeded.

Reimbursements, work-study, campus workers

TC: So transitioning to reimbursements—is the reimbursement [something] being put in place now or do you have any idea of what that plan is?

MS: The specifics of the reimbursement are being developed. As the message said yesterday, the University will reimburse already-paid, unused fees for resident housing fees and dining fees. We don't have yet the specifics, the form of that, whether it will be a credit or a refund. But there will be a reimbursement for residential students—reimbursement of unused housing and dining fees for residential students.

TC: So for students on work-study, will they still be able to work or collect money that, either in a grant? How will work-study continue?

MS: That'll be part of the [Student Affairs] guidance that'll be coming out today.

TC: Is there a plan, with students gone, in place to support low-wage and hourly workers like bus drivers and cooks and cashiers?

MS: Yes. You can find the guidance on the coronavirus website and find the guidance that was sent to managers yesterday about that. Everybody is going to be kept in their current pay status. Those who can work from home and want to work from home obviously will continue. Those who are in positions where working from home is not a possibility, and where their roles and responsibilities might not be might not be being activated during this time, like, you know, bus drivers or, you know, cooks or others, may be shifted to other duties. But one way or another, everybody will continue to be paid.

Health care

TC: For student health care, I have a couple things. Is it possible for people on Duke's health care to get reimbursed or get get health care covered in their hometowns, and will the pharmacy be able to transfer any medications or prescriptions to hometown pharmacies?

MS: So, every Duke student has to have insurance. So as far as I know, there are no plans to—everybody's insurance will continue. If you're on your family's insurance obviously that continues. If you're on the Duke student insurance, that will continue. And for those students who will be on living on campus, Student Health will be open and will be the first point of contact for any kind of health care. Prescriptions, I believe that is part of the plan that's being developed to transfer prescriptions. So assume the answer is yes, and check with Student Health on your specific situation.

TC: Does student health care cover any costs outside of Duke?

MS: Well, it depends on your insurance plan. There's student health, which is the on-campus clinic. But in addition, every student at Duke has to have health insurance, separate from Student Health. My guess is you're covered by your parents plan. If you're covered by your family planm, that continues. If you have bought a Duke student health insurance plan, that is a commercial health insurance plan, so it would cover you wherever you are.

Study abroad

TC: And the last thing is, what is the plan for study abroad, both students that are currently on study abroad and students who will be going on study abroad next semester?

MS: Well, we haven't made decisions about summer programs yet. We will probably be in a position by early April to make decisions about summer programs. Students who are in study-abroad programs in potential risk areas—I think Barcelona was the most recent where where programs are winding down—those programs are being wound down and students are coming back to the U.S. They will go home. If you're coming back from a from a study abroad program, your direction will be to go home, not to come to campus, unless you have some extenuating circumstance that requires you to come to campus.

TC: Just to clarify, for study abroad programs that are scheduled to end I guess when they end—are there going to be any study abroad that students will be called home ASAP? Are they just going to play out the rest of their semesters barring a change?

MS: Yeah, so for those students who were in Madrid. Earlier this week, I think on Monday, the government of Madrid ordered the end of face-to-face classes and educational activities for basically all schools in Madrid. So obviously, we cannot continue the program there. So those students who are on the Duke in Madrid program have been summoned home. And GEO is in the process of working with them. But to be clear, they will be going home, not to the Duke campus.

TC: And all the other ones are kind of case by case?

MS: Case by case, yeah.

Jake Satisky profile
Jake Satisky | Editor-in-Chief

Jake Satisky is a Trinity senior and the digital strategy director for Volume 116. He was the Editor-in-Chief for Volume 115 of The Chronicle. 


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