I thought I would write a brief note to summarize some thinking that has been in my previous notes over the past few months, that brings us to this moment when we welcome students back to our community, many in person, some digitally.

I realize that we are returning to campus during a fraught time in the national and local discussion, where strongly-felt perspectives are being voiced, with several arguing in favor of us offering exclusively digital education and forsaking a return to campus altogether. It is the role of universities to allow space for discussion to flourish, and, as I noted in my most recent note, we listen carefully and deeply respect all perspectives.

I think Boston University is doing the right thing in re-opening its campus, and it is the right thing by us, as a school of public health, to be welcoming our community back, carefully, thoughtfully, offering the option of safe in-person teaching at this time. I offer a six-point summary of my thinking.

First, let me start with the epidemiology, my disciplinary home. We have been tracking the pandemic closely. We have, at the moment, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the lowest average COVID-19 case positivity rate that we have had since the start of the pandemic. To put it simply: It has never been safer to be out of one’s home than now since the pandemic started. That, of course, may change, and as I have said before, if the data change, we will also change. But there is no indication, based on the current prevalence of disease, that we should not resume living cautiously unless we were to embrace a zero-risk perspective (see below), waiting until COVID-19 is completely eradicated.

Second, we have, as I have noted before, as a University, implemented, to my mind, the best state-of-the-science approach to returning to work possible. We have, as summarized in the Back2BU website, and in Dean Lazic’s ongoing SAFER updates, put in place measures such as screening, testing, contact tracing, isolation, building upgrades, physical distancing, masking, and risk stratification with adjustments for those at high risk. These essentially are the full range of measures that public health has been urging the world to take on since the start of the pandemic. We are doing them, and it seems to me the logical next step that since we are doing what we have said should be done, we should then follow through with moving to gradually re-open the world—in our case our own workplace—when we know that much harm is happening because of the ongoing restrictions to mitigate the virus.

Third, we have a core responsibility to the University’s mission. That mission, as well articulated by Provost Morrison, is to be a residential University that prepares students for the world in our undergraduate and graduate courses. That mission is more important now than ever. It is precisely because this is a moment of public health crisis that we need to make sure that we create public health professionals of the future, in the best way possible. We are making the effort to create opportunities for our students to learn in all modalities not because it is easy to do so, but because it is the right thing to do by our students, by the world.

Fourth, in the context of an epidemic that is at its lowest point since it started, and in the context of a University that is doing all that is known and possible to create a safe workplace, we may ask: if not now, then when? The counter to re-opening here would be that nothing should re-open until COVID-19 no longer is a threat. But that type of zero-risk thinking leaves us falling short of living, and itself carries burdens and challenges. Our aspirations to create a healthier world are so that people can live full and rich lives. Health is a means to that, and it is our responsibility to make sure that we facilitate a return to living, carefully, in a measured way, but living nonetheless.

Fifth, a majority of surveyed students have said that they would prefer to be in person, and that will unfold in the coming weeks. There is no question that some students do not wish to be on campus, but that is exactly the option the LfA approach affords us, to ensure that all our students can choose teaching modality that best suits their needs. There is abundant evidence that exclusively digital modalities disadvantage students with fewer means, and it is a core part of our mission to make the best possible education accessible to as many students as possible, at all times, as we are doing right now. By opening our school, we allow students who might not have a home environment conducive to learning to have access to space to fully engage with their education.

Sixth, the University has provided the opportunity for faculty and staff to request workplace adjustments where they can work remotely, ensuring that anybody at higher risk in this moment is not unduly exposed. Faculty, staff, doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, and other members of the community have been granted workplace adjustments as requested, keeping us in line with epidemiologic principles of risk stratification, making sure that we minimize risk as much as possible.

I realize, I really do, that there is much concern about what other schools have done, what other universities have done. But each school and university has to make choices based on its own particular circumstance, in its location. And we are doing just that, making decisions based on the moment, based on how best we can fulfill our mission, at this moment in time. Other schools may make different and reasonable decisions, particular to their context, and as I have said before, if the data change, we will change course accordingly, as I expect will other institutions. In the country, the vast majority of universities are open to hybrid education, as we are doing, as are schools and programs of public health. So, in no way are we alone. I expect that some will change course, many will not. Time will tell and we will continue to monitor best practices, and the data, every day, to make sure that we are safe, and engaged in the world.

And we do so because our mission is important, and I, for one, am deeply grateful to be part of an organization that has purpose and meaning during a difficult time.

I conclude with a personal note.  This is a hard time. It is hard to return to the office when we have not been here for months. It is hard to take our children to their college amidst the pandemic, as I did last weekend with my son. It is hard to look after our relatives and families during this time. It is hard to focus on our professional responsibilities in a time of such uncertainty.  It is hard, impossible even, to make decisions that will align with everyone’s expectations and perspectives. It is all hard, and it would be much, much, easier to stay at home indefinitely until there is no risk.

But that is not what the moment calls for. The moment calls for us to create the next generation of students. To do so carefully, with full respect of the gravity of the challenge around us, yes, but to reenter, to live up to our mission.

It is, always, a privilege to be part of this community, and never more so than during this difficult time. Thank you all for all you do, every day.



Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean, Robert A Knox Professor

View all announcements