Spring Semester Plans

Dear Faculty and Staff:

As just announced by President Stanley, Michigan State University will begin spring semester classes with most of its undergraduate classes online, but with a larger number of in-person classes than were offered this fall. This decision was arrived at based on a) safety data from the current on-campus teaching and learning experiences; b) the strength of our health systems; and, c) the needs of our faculty, staff, and students to plan for the spring semester. Below I detail aspects of each of these decisional nodes and welcome your questions at any time in the future. I recognize at the outset that this letter is long. My intention is to provide information that is useful for you and your thinking within colleges and courses. 

Before we get to the data, I note that our shared goal is to develop a model that involves “progressive planning” instead of a “pivot.” This means that there are likely to be iterations on our way toward spring, so ongoing coordination will be critical. I want to thank you and the college deans and administrative teams, the folks in the Office of the Provost, especially our registrar, and every single faculty and staff member, who will now begin working with a new calendar and new teaching modality for their spring courses. 

Campus Operated Safely During Summer and Fall On-campus Teaching and Learning Experiences

Since July, undergraduate and graduate student teaching and learning has taken place in our research labs and performance disciplines, with a campus density of nearly 3,000 faculty, staff, and students. By adhering to CDC guidelines, including masks and physical distancing, no COVID-19 transmissions have been documented. Our classrooms, laboratories, performance spaces, and offices are all covered by a campus safety plan, which is coordinated by the Office of the University Physician, the Office of the Provost, Facilities Planning & Space Management, and the Office of Research & Innovation. At the present time, nearly 600 labs and 42 courses are running in a safe and compliant manner and our students are able to continue toward their academic goals. 

Based on the existing data regarding the safe operation of our teaching and learning environments, and the didactic requirements of several types of courses, we will be increasing our in-person classes and residence hall capacity. As of today, approximately 400 undergraduate classes have been identified by colleges for in-person offerings in the spring semester. Moreover, the residence halls will increase their current occupancy to accommodate a total of 4,300 students. Faculty offices will be opened for research and scholarship. Co-curricular activities that are compliant with Ingham County Public Health Orders will be allowed. Physical safety is our prime objective, even as we create the spaces and places for intellectual work on campus.

While there will be ten-fold more courses, the overall density of people on the MSU campus will be much lower than in a non-pandemic year. The associate deans for undergraduate education and college deans will be providing further information on course registration and the senior vice president for Residential and Hospitality Services and Auxiliary Enterprises will be announcing times and processes for housing. 

Strength of Our Health Systems

The MSU Re-Opening Task Force, led by Dr. Norm Beauchamp and Dr. Dave Weismantel, worked diligently to enable testing on our campus beginning in July. Any symptomatic faculty, staff, or student is able to obtain a COVID-19 test. Early detection testing developed by MSU faculty is offered through a Spartan Spit Kit. The MI-COVID Alert app is a tool developed in partnership by the State of Michigan and MSU to ensure individuals who come into contact with a COVID-19 individual are notified. When paired with human contact tracers, MSU has invested in a safety net of artificial intelligence and genuine intelligence to help keep us safe. Quarantine spaces have been set aside in our residential housing facilities and the number of on-campus residents in quarantine on Oct. 21, 2020 was seven. The MSU Community Compact is enforced and adhered to by the vast majority of students. A small number of students who were found not in compliance with the Community Compact and Ingham County Executive Orders were referred to the Dean of Students. So, from clinical leadership to symptomatic testing and from casual and formal contact tracing, along with individual behavioral expectations and consequences, the MSU Re-Opening Task Force has created a system that enables the healthiest environment possible for our campus. 

I was recently told that in 1999, our university physician vaccinated 19,000 campus members for meningococcus after two infections were documented. Until a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is available to the campus community, our way forward is to adhere to CDC guidelines and take prudent measures with respect to the size of events. In so doing, we can continue to enable our physical health and our intellectual health.

New Grade Reporting Option for Fall 2020 Semester

President Stanley has approved the recommendation that was made to him by academic governance regarding NR-C (No Record - COVID19). This means MSU will implement a substitute grade of NR-C for all undergraduate student grades of 1.5, 1.0, or 0.0 earned during Fall Semester 2020. Grades of 0.0 will automatically be replaced with NR-C; grades or 1.0 or 1.5 will be replaced with NR-C if the student so chooses.

By default, graduate students will generally have the option of substituting a grade of NR-C for grades of 2.5 or below earned during Fall Semester 2020. Students are strongly encouraged to work with their academic advisors and their programs to determine possible implications of their choices. Also, per request of the college, the option can be removed for specific programs, in particular those whose accreditation or other constraints make the NR-C option problematic.

Over the next several days, members of the University Committee on Undergraduate Education and the Council of Undergraduate Education Deans will craft an FAQ to address any lingering questions with this. Students are strongly encouraged to work with their academic advisors to determine possible implications of their choices.

Planning for Spring

In my discussions with faculty and staff across the colleges, I continue to be impressed by the innovative, thoughtful, and caring ways our educators are supporting students this fall semester. I know it is hard work, and I know that many of you are managing work plus childcare and eldercare and experiencing so many other challenges associated with remote learning, all while coping with societal tensions related to public health, politics, and injustices. I am hearing many recent comments about how the cumulative stress and strain can be exhausting. The Office of the Provost is adding new ways to support and assist our faculty, students, and staff, with many resources available on the MSU Guide to Remote Access website, in each audience-specific area: Teaching, Learning, Working, and Researching. New mental health resources have been added, so please check the Keep Teaching site – and the WorkLife site – to learn more, now and throughout the semester. The Employee Assistance Program is also available to help support faculty and staff.

President Stanley has made it clear that the safety and well-being of all members of the MSU community and the success of our students remain our top priorities. The next few weeks will be critical as we complete the fall semester and prepare ourselves and set our students’ expectations for spring semester. Our hope is that learning about this decision now, the factors that went into the decision, and the safe ways in which we have been operating will allow you a measure of confidence in the work that lies ahead.

The following details are being shared to help keep us all on the same page and aware of key information as we move forward.

Our Communications Plan for Students

As a follow-up to President Stanley’s message, the Office of the Provost has asked each college’s dean to provide specific details to students within their college in the coming days. This will allow us to provide college-specific information to students in an efficient and effective way as we point them to the information most pertinent to them, along with where to go if they have questions. The needs of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students are all distinct. Deans, chairs, and program leaders will be responsible for the details for each group of students.

I would like to remind you to please point to our Together We Will and Keep Learning websites in your student communications, as both continue to be updated with student resources.

Important Academic Calendar Update

It is also important to communicate information on our spring calendar to students. The calendar may remain the same for certain professional programs, and this is being discussed with the relevant programs and colleges. However, in the general calendar — which applies to virtually all undergraduate and most graduate programs, instruction will end on Friday, April 23, 2021 and finals week will be held one week earlier than previously scheduled to allow for a week-long period for graduation ceremonies. Please make note that there will be no spring break, originally scheduled to be March 8-12. Most of our peers have similarly decided to cancel spring break for 2021 in order to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. We will schedule three midweek days without classes during the semester, the details of which are being finalized now. This will provide you with an opportunity to take a brief break from your normal routine and rest, or to catch up on the many different responsibilities you have. For law, medical, and business colleges, please be sure to adjust your academic schedules in consultation with the Office of the Provost and communicate your unique needs to students as well.

Supporting the mental health and well-being of our students is incredibly important and we encourage you to share our student mental health resources with them in any communications you send. I remind you to please extend grace and empathy in your teaching this semester and in the spring as one fundamental way of expressing care for and support of our students.

Mental Health and Wellness

Please also keep an eye on your own mental health and well-being, now and as the academic year progresses. All academic units have been instructed by the Office of the Provost to be as flexible as possible with work arrangements, and that directive will extend into the spring. Please reference the faculty and staff mental health resources that are available to you, and reach out should you need help or support.

Before the Start of Spring Classes

Based on feedback gathered during fall semester, the Office of the Provost has developed a set of guidelines for faculty to follow when preparing for spring semester. Please be sure to do the following:

  • Contact your students before the start date of each class and share information about how to access your course.
  • Please share your syllabi and course schedules with students for every course by the start of classes.
  • Set clear expectations and grading criteria for each assignment.
  • Be sure to adhere to university policies and best practices, such as our Zoom best practices.
  • When possible, reduce the complexity of technologies required of students and use MSU’s Core Tools and explore alternative approaches for international student participation.

You can find syllabus support, safety guidelines for classrooms, professional development opportunities, and more on our Keep Teaching website. We have also recently developed a playlist on #iteachmsu Commons to further organize all professional development opportunities, across campus that relate to learning online pedagogical principles and developing proficiency with a variety of MSU technologies. Please reference this playlist frequently as new opportunities will develop throughout the semester.

SOIREE (Spartan Online Instructional Readiness for Educational Excellence) Workshop

To help support faculty members’ continuing professional development, we are offering programs that were very popular this summer. The SOIREE workshop will be offered from 11/30-12/7 and includes synchronous and asynchronous work. There are one-hour synchronous Zoom sessions on four days (11/30, 12/2, 12/4, and 12/7) at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. The hope is that participants will join all eight synchronous Zoom sessions and complete asynchronous work outside of the Zoom sessions. To sign-up for SOIREE, please complete the following form. We are limiting this workshop to a total of 200 people on a first-come, first-served basis. The registration deadline is two weeks prior to its start date, on November 16.  

The ASPIRE (ASynchronous Program for Instructional REadiness) workshops are also available to instructors. This is a self-paced option and enrollment for the ASPIRE workshop can be found here. Please note that the SOIREE and ASPIRE workshops are equivalent; you should not sign up for or complete both. Each workshop will take roughly 20 hours to complete. 

If you have questions related to SOIREE or ASPIRE, please direct them to Ashley Braman (behanash@msu.edu) or Breana Yaklin (yaklinbr@msu.edu) for more information.

We Need Your Feedback

We are also exploring what the future of educator professional development at MSU should be. Toward that end, please fill out this short survey as part of that process. The questions address topical needs, preferences for delivery, and what is most effective for you as a professional. This survey should take between 5-10 minutes to complete and will close on Tuesday, November 6.

Additional Support

Finally, a reminder to please visit the following websites for additional support on how to navigate software, for further instruction on how to access course material, or if you need to know where to find technical or course development assistance.

Thank You

Thank you all for your extraordinary efforts on behalf of our students. While such thanks may be little solace in the immediacy of the moment, vaccine trials do seem to be moving ahead at a good pace, and I am hopeful that we will have a way forward before the virus’ natural end. In the meantime, please remember to extend grace and empathy to one another, to your students, and to yourself.

With gratitude for the work of today and best wishes for the planning leading to our spring semester of tomorrow.

My best,

Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D. (she/her/hers)
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
MSU Foundation Professor