Stanford Campus Conversation stresses pandemic perseverance

During Monday’s Campus Conversation, the president and provost encouraged perseverance in light of a COVID-19 surge as they updated the Stanford community on pandemic responses, winter quarter plans and efforts to advance diversity and inclusion.

Although advances in COVID-19 vaccines represent “a light at the end of the tunnel,” President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told members of the campus community Monday that Stanford must “remain vigilant” in adhering to public health guidelines in the face of a recent surge in cases nationwide.

The president and provost encouraged perseverance in light of a COVID-19 surge as they updated the Stanford community during Monday’s Campus Conversation. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

As a result, the university is carefully evaluating pandemic conditions and public health requirements as it continues to plan for an expanded number of undergraduate students to return to campus during winter quarter. Any changes in plans to bring back first-year students, sophomores and new transfers will be announced before the university’s winter closure begins on Dec. 14. The university also expects to continue housing graduate and professional students and students with special circumstances during Winter Quarter.

Those were among the updates shared by Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell. Monday’s Campus Conversation, the latest in a series of updates being held throughout the year, addressed COVID-19 research underway at Stanford Medicine, staff plans over the next few months and efforts to advance diversity and inclusion, as well as the university’s pandemic responses.

County restrictions

Drell reminded members of the campus community new restrictions recently imposed by Santa Clara County as a surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in the county returning to the most restrictive of state-defined pandemic categories. Among the restrictions is a night-time curfew. Santa Clara County has imposed until Dec. 21 a quarantine for those who travel more than 150 miles away. San Mateo County, where Stanford Redwood City is located, has not imposed the same travel restriction.

Drell said Stanford remains in contact with county health authorities as they monitor the current surge and make recommendations. The university has already enhanced safeguards for winter quarter, when the student population is expected to grow from about 6,000 students to about 10,000, including:

  • Starting with only remote instruction for the first two weeks.
  • Prohibiting in-person gatherings for the first two weeks.
  • Increasing student testing to twice per week for the beginning of the quarter, which is up from once per week during the Autumn Quarter.
  • Requiring testing for faculty, staff and postdocs who are working in person on campus. The testing will be free.

In addition, Drell said only a limited number of staff members will return to work during winter quarter, based on identified needs in specific areas and providing plans do not need to change because of state and county mandates. All other staff, she said, will likely continue to work remotely at least through March.

In a question-and-answer period, the president said that – at this point – no decisions have been made about whether Stanford will require vaccinations once they become available. The issue is currently under study, although he expects there will be widespread voluntary use of the vaccines. Tessier-Lavigne assured the campus community that, “I, for one, will be there with my arm presented directly for the shot.”

Both the president and provost said the potential availability of vaccines lead them to be optimistic that next fall – if not sooner – will be closer to “normal” on the Stanford campuses. But both cautioned that predictions are hard to make given the variability of the virus and the availability of vaccines. Both, however, predicted that the surge in cases may make the next several months challenging.

“We must remain extremely vigilant in our adherence to public health guidelines as the vaccines wend their way through the government approval process, and as plans are made to produce and distribute them over the coming months,” Tessier-Lavigne said, adding, “It has been a long eight months, and we still have some months to go.”

Staff shout-out

During her opening remarks, Drell gave a “shout-out” to the Stanford staff community, which she noted includes everyone from front-line workers who have been on campus to others working from home. She expressed gratitude for staff members’ continued support of the university’s mission during difficult times and for finding ways to connect, work through problems and get things done.

“This is the reality of the pandemic that we’re facing,” she said. Until public health conditions change, Drell said the university seeks to limit in-person work on campus to the activities that really only can be done in person. In response to a question, Drell also said that University Human Resources is discussing the ways it can best support staff during the continuing need to work from home.

“In the meantime, thank you for your patience,” she said. “I know that when the first shelter-in-place order came down in March, I never dreamed we would still be working remotely. I don’t think any of us saw that future. But it is a necessity of the situation we are in.”

Drell reminded the campus community that those staff, faculty, post-docs and students who are on campus during winter quarter will be required to participate in a testing program on a regular basis. She encouraged those who are subject to the testing starting Jan. 4 to visit the Health Alerts website in advance.

Diversity and inclusion

The provost also outlined progress in the university’s racial justice initiatives. A future Campus Conversation will be devoted to the topic in winter quarter. In the meantime, Drell said she and the president have been meeting with community members of color.

“We’ve been hearing about your experiences at Stanford, your frustrations and your ideas for change,” she said. “And we know that change needs to happen.”

Among the ongoing initiatives Drell highlighted:

  • The IDEAL Provostial Fellows Program, which has received more than 600 applications for positions for early-career scholars engaged in the study of race and ethnicity.
  • Faculty Cluster Hires, which is working to hire 10 eminent scholars and researchers in the study of the effect of race in America.
  • The Framework Task Force, which will recommend a new infrastructure for the study of race and the effects of race on society.
  • The IDEAL Staff Advisory Committee, which is developing recommendations that will further diversity and inclusion among staff at Stanford.
  • The Black Community Council, whose membership was recently named. The council will make recommendations on efforts to advance racial justice and to support our Black community at Stanford and hold the university accountable.

The provost also reiterated her regrets about a diversity training checklist distributed throughout campus regarding compliance with an executive order issued by the Trump administration. The checklist has been removed. Stanford has joined seven other universities in filing an amicus brief supporting a legal challenge to the executive order.

In response to a question, the provost said the university is pursuing a “root-cause analysis” to discover how the checklist was created and distributed without appropriate review and approval.

Drell said that she does not believe the checklist was representative “of a specific person or a specific team,” adding, “I actually think that people do make mistakes and they have to be able to learn and grow from their mistakes. So I am more focused on that than punishment.”

Stanford Medicine research

The president also used the Campus Conversation forum to praise research at Stanford Medicine to prevent, diagnose and treat COVID-19 and to better understand how it spreads.

Among the research he cited:

  • Stanford Medicine is participating in a Phase 3 clinical trial for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to help determine whether it protects against COVID-19 infection.
  • Stanford epidemiologists are conducting a clinical trial to determine whether the antiviral drug favipiravir prevents COVID-19 from replicating in human cells, halts the shedding of the virus and reduces the severity of infection in people with mild symptoms.
  • Stanford Medicine experts have worked to create a framework to guide public officials, school administrators and business leaders on re-establishing operations during and after the pandemic.

“I’m deeply grateful to everybody at Stanford Medicine – and all the other parts of the university working with the School of Medicine – for the remarkable work they have been doing to contribute to the global response to COVID-19 during this time of intense pressure,” he said.