Northeastern University intends to reopen for on-campus classes this fall

"This is a highly complex endeavor."

Inside the Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex at Northeastern University.
Inside the Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex at Northeastern University. –David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

The president of Northeastern University says the school intends to open for on-campus classes this fall, with a gradual, phased reopening of its Boston campus potentially starting later this month.

“To put things in very clear terms: It is our intention to reopen our campuses this fall and offer on-site instruction and a residential experience for our students,” President Joseph Aoun wrote in an open letter to the school community, published Friday. “This is a highly complex endeavor; in fact, even more complicated than the move to remote learning and working we accomplished in March.”

Thousands of students at Northeastern have not been on campus since residence halls emptied out on March 17. Classes switched to online instruction days earlier, on March 12, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic settled into New England.

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Aoun wrote university leaders in recent weeks have been focused on “advanced scenario planning” for the summer and fall semester, and maintaining safety and wellbeing remains paramount.

A return to campus by the fall will require “new and innovative thinking about classroom usage, residential occupancy, dining, athletics, student activities, and other elements of campus life,” he said.

“Rest assured that every aspect of how the university operates is being evaluated in the context of our new reality,” Aoun wrote.

Aoun outlined a mixed approach in his letter, citing, for example, that the university will offer many large lectures in both “live and recorded formats” while some other courses “will allow for both live and remote participation.”

“We will need to expand student housing into new buildings and communities to reduce residential density,” he added. “This may include setting aside residential space to accommodate those who will need to safely self-isolate.”

However, Northeastern anticipates opening certain facilities even before the fall semester, according to Aoun. The school is planning for a gradual reopening of its research labs and administrative offices, prioritizing faculty and staff who “can best complete their work on campus, including researchers who need access to labs and scientific equipment,” he said.

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For the time being, employees can still choose whether to return to campus, he said.

“A range of new safety protocols and procedures will be put in place on our campuses,” the letter says. “These will include use of face masks, staggered business hours, increased disinfection and cleaning, use of the SafeZone app to check into campus buildings, and large-scale deployment of testing and contact tracing.”

According to Aoun, the university’s reopening timelines will vary based on campus locations.

“In Boston, for example, this gradual reopening could begin later this month,” he wrote, adding that more details will be released within the coming days. “We are in close contact with the governor and state public health authorities, and will sequence our decisions with the latest COVID-19 data. Reopening will be a phased process, and we will maintain the ability to accelerate or decelerate based on real-time information.”

Aoun thanked students, faculty, and staff for their resilience and dexterity in handling how the COVID-19 pandemic upended the normal routines of university life.

That, however, has not been without its challenges.

Aoun’s announcement comes a week after a graduate student filed a class action lawsuit against the university in federal court over the March campus shutdown.

The lawsuit alleges the university breached its contract with tuition-paying students when it moved its classes online but retained the full cost of tuition that students paid with the expectation of receiving an in-person education for the spring semester.

A university spokesperson told Boston.com Monday that school officials had not yet reviewed the complaint, but noted that “all colleges and universities moved classroom instruction online this spring in compliance with public health requirements.”

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Read the full letter published Friday.

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