October 16, 2020

University COVID-19 Update from Interim Provost Ira Katznelson

On Friday, October 16, 2020, Interim Provost Ira Katznelson sent the message below to the Columbia campus community.

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,


Here we are, near the mid-point of our fall term, a time of achievement, uncertainty, and possibility. We are writing to report on current circumstances and to preview the planning process that has begun for the spring term.


The University is open, by many measures thriving. Undergraduate and graduate studies have resumed with a combination of types of instruction. Literally hundreds of classes have benefited from pedagogical training and technological innovation. Library access and services, as well as lab research, have been renewed. Quite remarkably, on most days more than 15,000 faculty, staff, and students are present on our campuses. Many are taking advantage of our extended transportation links and other enhancements to benefits. In all, the return has been orderly and safe.


Density, of course, has been modulated. Thousands of affiliates are conducting studies and office-based work remotely, including many students in other locations who would prefer to be residing on or near campus. This reduced concentration has been necessary to ensure physical distancing and the success of the various public health measures we have implemented. With more than 30,000 SARS-CoV-2 tests conducted, we can report a positivity rate that remains well under 1%. When identified, effective tracing and isolation protocols swiftly follow. Test results are reported weekly on Columbia’s COVID-19 website and every day to New York State.


Presently just over 900 Columbia College and SEAS students and a small cohort of Barnard undergraduates, a group that has a strong need to be present, are on campus in our residence halls. Thousands of other undergraduate and graduate students reside in university apartments and in other off-campus housing. Many adaptations have been made to our facilities, and along with the implementation of additional strong safety precautions including state of the art testing, a culture of care and compliance has allowed us to resume a significant share of activity at CUIMC, Manhattanville, and Morningside.


None of this achievement would have been possible without the positive and stable local and regional public health news we have enjoyed since the start of the summer. As we write, that steadiness seems unsure. Recent neighborhood spikes and a slight, but real, growth in other measures, including increases in hospitalization for COVID-19 at a return to late June levels, are disquieting.


We thus have entered a period of careful, indeed assiduous, vigilance. Further expansion of campus activities, including access to our fitness centers, has been suspended until early November, when a reassessment will take place. In this context, continued adherence is critical for us all, on campus and off. Reinforcing all our safety measures, we have extended SARS-CoV-2 testing and the reach of our Safety Coordinators in schools and common spaces, and are closely monitoring compliance with the Columbia Community Health Compact. As required, appropriate educational and disciplinary actions are being pursued.


A great deal of work is underway to plan for the spring term in full recognition that it is close to impossible to predict the state of the pandemic three months ahead. Our immediate goal, reaching provisional decisions about the contours of the post-January 11 campus by mid-November, is being pursued in multiple venues: our working groups on public health, facilities, and education; a senior administration Implementation Group; the COVID-19 Task Force; and the Council of Deans. These sites of consideration are being augmented by student surveys (an undergraduate instrument has been launched this week and similar inquiries of our graduate and professional students will soon follow), more robust faculty participation (in our schools and including a revived Provost’s Faculty Advisory Committee), and advice from University Senate committees. We will be guided by State of New York authorizations and, above all, by public health considerations as evaluated by our remarkable colleagues who specialize in virus research and epidemiology. Our watchword is safety first.


We close with thanks. As we seek to return to an ever more vibrant University, the commitment and assistance of every member of the community in the spirit already amply exhibited are indispensable. If we are to transcend current limitations with care and well-being, the relevant tasks can only be undertaken collaboratively. The steps we all are taking aim, with great caution, to make it possible as conditions permit to resume the shared in-person intellectual and communal activities we cherish at Columbia.




Ira Katznelson

Interim Provost

Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History


Donna Lynne

Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Office

Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Chief Executive Officer, ColumbiaDoctors

University COVID Director