Columbia President Outlines Plans for a Safe Return to Campus

University can invite up to 60 percent of undergraduates in Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to live on campus this fall.

Carla Cantor
July 07, 2020

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger has announced plans to reopen the University this fall, with a combination of a three-term schedule, hybrid teaching and extensive safety measures centered around preventing the spread of COVID-19.  

The University has determined it can safely offer residential options, including on-campus housing, for 60 percent of undergraduates in Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Deans of each of Columbia’s schools are designing their own reopening plans, and school-specific messages, along with all reopening news, will be posted on the COVID-19 Resource Guide website

“The COVID-19 pandemic remains a major public health threat, and the challenges we face collectively, as well as individually, are daunting,” said Bollinger, who outlined the reopening process in a July 7 email to the community. “Today it is time to move forward with what we believe to be the best possible plan for Columbia.” 

Columbia’s plan calls for classes to begin September 8, as scheduled, but there will be significant changes to the nature of campus life. Most courses will be taught remotely or in hybrid form, although faculty members will be able choose whether to teach in person, online or some combination of the two approaches, in consultation with their school. 

“While we will provide maximum flexibility in teaching and scholarship and will seek to provide an on-campus experience to as many undergraduates as possible, we do have to impose strict guidelines that will apply to all who live, work, study and teach at Columbia,” Bollinger said in his email. Safety protocols include such measures as social distancing, mask-wearing, on-campus testing and daily symptom checks.  

Bollinger expressed hope that face-to-face classes could resume soon, but he emphasized that all decisions related to instruction and residential life will align with New York City guidelines and are contingent on New York State moving into Phase 4 of its reopening plan.  

Below are key highlights of the University’s plans as they stand now. More information and updates will be provided throughout the summer on the COVID-19 Resources page.

Academic Calendar

  • A three-term Fall, Spring, Summer calendar.  
  • Classes will begin September 8 and end the Friday before Thanksgiving. Students who are living on campus will return home at the Thanksgiving break and complete courses and exams virtually.
  • Classes for Spring 2021 start January 11.
  • The summer term will begin May 3 and end June 18 to allow students time for internships and other work.
  • Commencement will take place at the end of the spring term, during the last week of April.


  • In-person undergraduate classes will not exceed 50 students, adhering to social distancing guidelines.
  • Newly installed equipment and technology will allow for a rich classroom experience, whether remote or in-person.

Student Life

  • The University can safely offer on-campus housing to 60 percent of first- and second-year Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences undergraduate students, along with entering transfer students.   
  • The University will be able to accommodate the same proportion of Columbia School of General Studies undergraduate students in off-campus Columbia residential housing as it has in the past.
  • First- and second-year students would depart campus at the Thanksgiving break, and third- and fourth-year students would be invited to move into residence halls in early January for spring term.
  • Columbia’s Global Center is adapting its network of overseas locations to provide in-person academic and peer engagement for international students. 
  • Columbia School of General Studies will launch an undergraduate academy focused on justice and pandemic preparedness, with attention on communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including many of the neighborhoods surrounding Columbia.

Health and Safety

  • Every person on campus must wear a face covering at all times, unless in a private room with the door closed. 
  • Physical distancing will be enforced, especially in classrooms and residence halls.
  • All students, faculty and staff returning to campus will be required to take a COVID-19 test. And each day, they will have to administer a symptom self-check. 
  • All students, faculty and staff on the Columbia campus will be asked to sign a community compact, affirming that they understand the University’s health and safety policies and agree to follow them. 
  • An overview of public health protocols on campus is available.