Delays in vaccinations and the continuing challenges posed by COVID-19 means many – if not most – members of the Stanford community will need to continue working remotely perhaps for months beyond the March 31 date originally anticipated for a return to campus, according to Provost Persis Drell.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell, Dean of Medicine Lloyd Minor screenshots from Zoom Campus Conversation Jan. 21, 2021

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Medical School Dean Lloyd Minor updated the campus community on the university’s adjustments to the continuing pandemic during Thursday’s Campus Conversation. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Drell shared that news during a Campus Conversation on Thursday that touched on the continuing adjustments Stanford has made as a result of the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The wide-ranging conversation and question-and-answer session, which also included President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Medical School Dean Lloyd Minor, touched on everything from upcoming budget priorities to undergraduate fall experiences to vaccine administration.

Drell said the university is currently studying when staff might return to campus and what services might be provided to offer the flexibility many need because of stressful family obligations.

“We are looking at this now, and we’ll be in touch with you when we have a better sense of when we think we’ll be able to have larger numbers of people returning physically to campus,” she said.

In the meantime, Drell said the university continues to incur what she called “significant COVID-related expenses” and sustain diminished revenues in some areas. But thanks to better-than-expected market returns, the university has been able to avoid further broad-based cuts. Reinstating a salary program is one of Drell’s highest priorities in the 2021-22 budget.

Winter quarter disappointment

Drell and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne also shared university leadership’s disappointment at being unable to accommodate first-year students and sophomores on campus this winter quarter, as originally planned. Stanford leaders made the decision after models of the virus progression suggested public health restrictions would be implemented that would make impossible meaningful interactions among those on campus. In other words, students might have returned to campus, only to experience isolation.

The timing of the Jan. 9 announcement to not accommodate first-year students and sophomores caused stress among some students and families, Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged. Drell and Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, recently wrote to families to acknowledge their concerns and to outline decision-making improvements for spring quarter. In the letter, Drell and Brubaker-Cole said they are aiming for the week of March 1 to give students and families an update on university plans.

Drell said she was optimistic that the university will be able to accommodate juniors and seniors as planned during spring quarter, but warned that the changing nature of the pandemic and shifting public health mandates make decision-making challenging.

The decision about winter quarter, which Tessier-Lavigne called “agonizing,” was the result of a careful monitoring of the COVID-19 surge throughout December and January. He said administrators held out hope even just weeks before the Jan. 9 reversal that it would be possible to provide a meaningful on-campus experience.

“But as the surge in infection rates and hospitalizations persisted in late December and early January, it became clear through our modeling that, unfortunately, public health restrictions would remain very stringent for most of the quarter, preventing most interactions with other students and with teaching staff,” he said.

COVID-19 challenges

The university’s challenges as a result of the pandemic – and those for the region and California in general – were brought into focus by Minor, who leads the university’s Oversight Committee for Testing, Quarantine and Exposure Notification. Participants in the question-and-answer part of the Campus Conversation focused many of their queries on vaccinations.

Minor said Stanford has conducted about 80,000 COVID-19 tests among students since the end of June. He said 150 Stanford students have tested positive, including 67 this month. So far in January, about 14,000 tests have been performed on staff, faculty and postdocs. Since August, 120 COVID-19 cases have been discovered among members of that group, with 40 this month.

Minor said there was an increase in COVID-19 cases among tested campus community members during the week that many graduate students, professional students and undergraduate students with special circumstances were returning to campus. The good news, however, is that the positive test numbers quickly declined in the following weeks as the university’s testing program prevented spread by identifying those in need of isolation.

There is other good news in COVID-19 statistics, Minor said. California’s hospitalization numbers are beginning to flatten, and Northern California has not seen the same surge in cases as occurred after the Thanksgiving holiday. Intensive care unit (ICU) availability in the Bay Area is now at 7.4 percent, up 4 percentage points from last week. As of Thursday, Stanford Hospital had 85 COVID-19 patients, 37 of whom were in the ICU.

Although Minor called vaccinations nationally “anything but smooth,” all eligible Stanford Medicine health care workers – including doctors, nurses, residents, fellows, environmental services and other patient-facing members of the community – had been invited to receive the vaccine as of Jan. 15. Scheduling has begun for Stanford Health Care patients age 65 and over who live in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Vaccinations rely on primary health care providers as the point of distribution, meaning Stanford University currently has no role in vaccinating its own faculty, staff and students. However, a committee, headed by Judith Goldstein, political science professor and Faculty Senate chair; Niraj Sehgal, chief medical officer of Stanford Health Care; and Yvonne Maldonado, professor of pediatrics and of epidemiology and population health, is meeting weekly to discuss likely future issues, including, for instance, whether vaccinations will be required.

Minor encouraged continued use of masks and social distancing – even among those who have been vaccinated – since it takes up to two weeks for the body to build up immunity after the second dose. In addition, it is unknown whether a vaccinated person can transmit the disease.

“It is likely that the Bay Area counties will stay in the purple designation – the highest risk designation of the state – until at least through February,” he said, adding that health officials anticipate cases to plateau for a period of time before a decline begins to occur.

Although the nation will be responding to the pandemic for many months to come, Minor sees a bright horizon in terms of the safety and efficacy of the current vaccines and the number of additional vaccines coming down the line.

Impressive resilience

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Drell and Tessier-Lavigne said they remain impressed and inspired by the creativity and flexibility of faculty and staff members in supporting students as the community remains isolated and as the university continues to rely on hybrid and online teaching methods. Those efforts have paid off with a high-quality educational experience, Drell said.

“We know that online learning isn’t ideal in every situation, but we do have evidence that our students are finding their course experiences enriching,” she said.

Every year at New Student Orientation, Drell asks first-year students and transfer students to share with her their initial Stanford experiences. Generally she receives about 200 responses.

“I’ve been very encouraged by some of the email comments I’ve been getting from our undergrads,” she said. “This year, I received more than 450 responses – the overwhelming majority of which were very positive!”

She read an email response from one student: “The main takeaway for me this quarter is a feeling of being inspired. I can describe every single Stanford person I interacted with as kind and inspiring. This quarter has made me feel like the world is at my fingertips and I can make a positive impact in whatever I want. I just have to find out what that is! It is inspiring and exciting!”

Questions answered

Members of the campus community posed questions on a wide range of subjects to the speakers, including about graduation plans, the university’s perspective on the executive orders issued by President Biden and the accommodations for athletes.

Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement, said decisions about an in-person graduation will likely be made in the next six weeks or so in consultation with students.

Tessier-Lavigne responded to a question about President Biden’s recent flurry of executive orders, some of which affect higher education in general and Stanford in particular. Tessier-Lavigne said the university was heartened by Biden’s rescinding of the travel ban, his efforts to bolster the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and his reentering the Paris Climate Accord.

“That’s not an exhaustive list, but a few examples,” he said. “We have seen progress on a few issues that are very important to us.”

Tessier-Lavigne also answered a question about accommodations that have been provided for some Cardinal student-athletes, who are among those with special circumstances who have returned to campus. Tessier-Lavigne noted that what student-athletes do cannot be done online and that their seasons occur only once per year. Tessier-Lavigne said that athletic team returns are being carefully staged – with different time periods for different sports. Each team’s experience is being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Those sports where the competitive season has been cancelled have not been invited back to campus.

“The reason we have gone ahead to invite athletes back falls under the rubric of special circumstances,” he said. “We believe athletes can have a meaningful experience on campus, which factored heavily. They are already organized in groups where, under the very strict restrictions of Santa Clara County, they can nevertheless do the conditioning that would be helpful to them.”