The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke has several contingency plans for start of spring semester

Executive vice provost outlined plans to Academic Council on Thursday

Duke has four possible plans for the start of the spring semester, including the current plan and three contingency options if COVID-19 rates are higher than expected, Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis told the Academic Council on Thursday.

In the last monthly Zoom meeting of the fall semester, the Academic Council packed in discussions ranging from spring semester plans to the University’s anti-racism efforts. Francis shared the University’s four possible plans for the spring semester, based on January’s baseline positivity rates and local and national coronavirus infection rates. 

Plan A assumes that everything proceeds as planned, and students begin classes Jan. 20. Plan B includes a three-day sequester period in the event that the baseline rates are higher than expected, during which classes would be remote. Plan C will be put in place if baseline positivity rates are even higher and would include a 10-to-14-day sequester period, she said.

Plan D, Francis added, covers the scenario that local, state and regional COVID-19 infection rates are higher than is deemed safe. In this case, students will begin classes remotely and may be brought back when health risks and travel restrictions permit.

Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh said that beginning Jan. 9, there will be 1500 slots a day for all students to receive a COVID-19 entry test, or “gateway test,” similar to the fall semester. He said fall semester surveillance testing will wrap up Monday, Nov. 23, and will resume twice a week for students remaining on campus from Nov. 30 through the end of December. 

He noted that although in the fall there was a “gap” between Duke’s gateway and surveillance testing for students, such a gap will not exist in the spring. Cavanaugh said that upon arrival in the spring semester, every undergraduate and graduate student will be entry tested and the University will start surveillance testing immediately after without having to go through a similar “ramp-up” period as in the fall.

Francis said that the University expects to see a higher rate of positive baseline tests from gateway testing in January than in August, due to the rise in COVID-19 cases locally and nationally and the fact that “people are quite tired.”

“The advances we made in positive behaviors, we’re going to have to be extra encouraging and forceful in getting more of that in the spring,” she said. She also noted that the colder months in January and February will limit the number of outside events Duke can hold. 

Associate Professor of Biology Steven Haase said that in order to predict these baseline rates in the spring semester, the University’s modeling team is working to understand where students come from and using county health data from those areas to make predictions on incident rates when students return to campus.

Even with more students living in Duke housing in the spring, Duke will keep students single-occupancy rooms with a 4:1 student-to-bathroom ratio, Francis said. 

Francis said Duke has added the JB Duke Hotel and expects to have full use of The Lodge—rather than just the annex portion—as a quarantine location in the spring semester, and the University is also looking into the use of non-traditional spaces on campus for quarantine or isolation use.

Compared to the fall semester, where around 15% of classes were in-person, Francis noted that there will be around 20% in-person classes in the spring. She said that much of that increase was likely among hybrid classes.

Fall testing recap

Cavanaugh said that between Aug. 6 and Nov. 16, there were  a total of 101 student cases: 98 undergraduates and 44 graduate students. Forty-one of the undergraduate cases were among on-campus students, while the other 57 were among off-campus students. 

Only one cluster was identified, among off-campus students. Haase said that in that situation, an initial case was identified through asymptomatic testing, the contact tracing team immediately followed up. 

Cavanaugh added that Duke is not aware of “a single instance of classroom transmission that has been identified.”

Cavanaugh said that Duke’s robust contact tracing program and interface with Durham public health—which he said has “not been the case nationally around other universities”—have been key components of its success in the fall semester. The University’s quarantine and isolation policy and student compliance have also been important, he added.

“Every single week when our students are being tested once and in some cases twice per week, that compliance is nearly 99% of those students showing up on a regular basis,” Cavanaugh said.

Haase shared a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by Duke faculty and staff about Duke’s testing protocol. He said that the fact that the University engaged in both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing—through entry testing, pool testing and the contact-tracing program—was important to reduce positivity rates. Only 6% of universities similar to Duke did regular surveillance testing of students, while most focused only on symptomatic testing, he said.

“If you take the combination of things [we did] that many other universities weren’t doing, that accounted for about 73% of the cases that we were able to identify. I think this is part of the success of the testing program,” he said.

Thomas Denny, a professor of medicine and the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, added that Duke has prioritized sensitivity for surveillance testing, meaning that the first test is very sensitive and may pick up false positives that then lead to a “confirmatory” clinical test.

In other business

The council also voted to pass revisions to Duke’s data licensing policy proposed at October’s meeting.

President Vincent Price and Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement, discussed Duke’s anti-racism initiatives

Correction: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the start of spring classes would be delayed under Plan B. It has been updated to reflect that classes would begin remotely during the three-day sequester period. 

Mona Tong

Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.


Share and discuss “Duke has several contingency plans for start of spring semester” on social media.