BREAKING: College announces rapid testing for the spring semester, virtual commencement in May

By Kendall Polidori, Co-editor-in-chief

In a collegewide email, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim announced new plans for the Spring and Fall 2021 semesters, including a virtual commencement and rapid COVID-19 testing. Mengshin Lin

As the Fall 2020 semester comes to an end, Columbia has announced new plans for the Spring and Fall 2021 semesters, shining a light on more changes to come due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a rapid COVID-19 test, another virtual commencement and hopes for in-person classes in the fall. 

Starting in January, the college plans to implement a new rapid COVID-19 test, which  will help identify and isolate cases faster than was possible during the Fall 2020 semester. 

In a Friday, Dec. 11 email to students and a similar, longer communication to faculty and staff, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim said the new testing option will allow the college to expand “certain in-person course offerings and experiences beyond what was possible in the fall semester.”

“The new test can be more easily deployed in programs and courses whose classroom activities carry more risk of exposure and cannot be contemplated without a rapid, same-day test,” he said. 

An exact price the college will pay for the rapid tests is still unclear, according to Associate Vice President of Strategic Communications and External Relations Lambrini Lukidis.

Additionally, in looking ahead to the Spring 2021 semester, Kim said commencement in May will be held virtually. Even though the college hopes for the gradual resumption of smaller-scale activities, a larger event such as commencement is not feasible due to the state of the pandemic locally and nationally.  

He said a campus team is already planning a virtual commencement in the college’s usual multi-ceremony format. There will be special ceremonies dedicated to both the class of 2020 and Spring 2021 graduates.  

“We have the advantage this year of a longer time frame in which to design and execute a more complete virtual ceremony than we were able to offer in May 2020,” Kim said. 

He said both plans will be developed further and more information will be announced in the coming weeks. 

For the Fall 2021 semester, Kim said the college plans to capitalize on the availability and distribution of a vaccine to offer an in-person class schedule “on a par with pre-COVID offerings.” 

But, he said this will be predicated on immunizations and advice from experts, the circulation of the vaccine and the possibility of the state lifting current social distancing guidelines. 

Lukidis said at this point Columbia hopes to continue with a hybrid approach for the summer, but the plans are not definitive. 

The college is looking into offering vaccines on-campus for students, faculty and staff, depending on the availability of distribution by the fall, she said. 

Even with the expected nationwide rollout of a vaccine in the months ahead, COVID-19 precautions will still be in place and plans are subject to change through constant consultation with public health agencies, experts at Rush University Medical Center and the University of Chicago.

In the similar Dec. 11 email sent to faculty and staff that also included an update on the college’s financial situation, Kim said Columbia is still moving forward with its five-year plan and looking to achieve “enrollment success and to make financial progress.” He called Fall 2019 “a banner year in total enrollment and new student recruitment,” but the pandemic disrupted that progress and led to net tuition revenues dropping by $17 million last fiscal year.

Kim said the Fall 2020 semester saw “modest growth” in freshman enrollment, but overall the college’s enrollment declined around 2.5%. He said the decline can be attributed to a freshman-to-sophomore retention rate that was 6 percentage points below the college’s pre-pandemic projection. 

The economic impact of the pandemic on students and families led the Board to rescind the previously approved 2% tuition increase for 2020-21. Additionally, the limitations on residence hall room occupancy further reduced revenues, and Kim said the college has taken on significant expenses as it implements necessary campus health and safety protocols.

Kim reiterated that the board approved a budget for the current fiscal year with a $34 million deficit, which he called “a remarkable gesture of confidence in and support for the college,” while also noting that it was not sustainable over an extended period. 

He said the college is facing two near-term concerns: The number of current students registered for spring classes is less than expected, and there are “a higher-than-usual number of students who are seeking to get out of their residence hall room contracts in the spring.”

Kim said he has asked college leadership to limit any non-essential spending and could not rule out “painful cost cutting measures that we have avoided so far” if “external circumstances worsen and our enrollment and financial indicators deteriorate further.” 

He ended his announcement to faculty and staff with a bit of positivity and levity for good measure: “Here’s to a rest-filled holiday season and to a new year full of renewed hope and possibility. (It has to be better than this one…)”

More updates to come.