SAIS-D.C. classes, activities will be virtual for fall 2020

July 17, 2020

Dear Washington, D.C.-bound SAIS Students,

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States last spring, we moved swiftly to adjust to it, switching to virtual instruction. Since the end of the spring semester, my team and I have engaged in intensive planning for the fall semester, hoping to conduct in-presence instruction at some level. In collaboration with JHU public health experts, we reviewed best practices, measured our classrooms to assess maximum capacity for social distancing, and developed protocols for the conduct of in-presence classes. We purchased personal protective and related safety equipment. And, of course, we continued to monitor the progress of the pandemic including, in recent weeks, its disturbing growth in many states.

Despite this effort, and after a great deal of consultation with my team, JHU leadership, and public health experts, I am writing to inform you that we have changed our earlier position and have reluctantly decided to conduct all SAIS-D.C. classes and activities in virtual and online formats for the Fall 2020 semester.

Let me explain our rationale.

First, the health, safety and well-being of SAIS students, faculty and staff remains our highest priority. When we made the decision to shift to virtual instruction in mid-March, there were only 3,000 active coronavirus cases in the US. As of this week, there are 3.5M, with numbers continuing to increase across the country, including in D.C. and Maryland. We have noted this as well.  

We understood from the outset that many students wanted to be physically present. We also knew that because of the ongoing pandemic, most of our instruction would have to be virtual (synchronous), online (asynchronous), or some combination of the two. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have carefully adhered to JHU guidelines for resuming on-campus activity which can be found here. The University remains in Phase I of this process which precludes in-presence teaching at any scale.

Over the last several months, we have devoted a great deal of effort and investment in improving the virtual and online experience at SAIS. We are creating ten mini-studios from seminar rooms too small for instruction, and are acquiring the equipment to improve the technical quality of classes that faculty deliver from them. Our department of Online and Distance Learning (ODL) has created an intensive course, in which all faculty are currently enrolled, that is intended to enhance their ability to teach effectively online. We have tripled the number of online courses that we will offer this fall. We have also gained a great deal of experience from hosting virtual events large and small, such as the Kissinger Center’s World Order After COVID conference which was attended by more than 3,000 people and the virtual visit by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss race relations in America.

Though we have been diligently preparing for a partial fall reopening, we have come to some sobering realizations in recent weeks about the numerous, restrictive protocols that would be necessary to maintain a safe environment and that would need to be observed by all those who physically enter our DC campus buildings. Some of them are as follows:

  • Classroom space would be minimal. Even our largest room (Kenney Auditorium) will be limited to a maximum of 23 students. A professor could not conduct a seminar normally, even in that room. In addition to Kenney, we would have at our disposal just half a dozen classrooms that could safely accommodate ten to twelve students. We explored rental of other spaces, but found them either unsuitable or exorbitantly expensive.
  • Constant masking while in SAIS buildings would be required. Movement on elevators and in corridors would be limited, and congregating prohibited.
  • There would be no functioning cafeteria, and the school would host no social events.
  • Library hours would be restricted as well.  

Even if we did all these things, we would still have to prepare to close down even limited in-presence instruction in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak within our campus population and/or an increase in local COVID-19 cases, for whatever period of lockdown might be mandated.

In other words, the SAIS DC on-campus experience would have been utterly unlike the on-campus experience prior to the shut-down, and dramatically inferior to it.

Despite all of the control measures we have prepared, we are keenly aware of the risks of infection in a closed environment, particularly once colder weather begins, and the fall flu season arrives. In addition, we noted that students who move to the Washington area would have to assume their own risk. If they needed to be quarantined as a result of testing positive for COVID-19, for example, or isolated as a result of being in close contact with someone who had tested positive, the school would not be able to defray the costs associated with relocating them or their roommates, or supporting unforeseen expenses. Holding in-presence classes would greatly increase those risks.

All SAIS-DC classes will therefore be available virtually or online for the Fall 2020 semester. We have decided this, knowing that the experience of those online – who will not have to mask, and who will be able to see faculty and classmates more clearly – would be considerably better than for the small minority spread across our few available rooms in the alternative scenario.

As the summer progresses, we felt it important to provide you with as much information as soon as possible so that you can complete your plans for the fall. We will continue to be mindful of government decisions and university policy, as that information emerges. We will, of course, continue to adjust in accordance with both, and medical and public health developments.

Experiencing this semester in a completely virtual/online format will provide a much more effective learning experience than a partially on-campus one. It will also be safer and less likely to be disrupted by the next phases of the pandemic. Most importantly, we believe that it will be a first-rate education, and we are committed to maintaining that high standard. Faculty and staff have put a great deal of effort into ensuring that, and will put more. Attached is a short synopsis of some of the efforts being made to enhance the virtual learning experience. The Offices of Student Life and Academic Affairs will follow-up with you to provide more detailed information regarding next steps.

This is not a letter I ever expected or wished to write; I am sure it is not the letter you wish to receive now either. But I do believe that the strengths of this institution are just as much on display now as ever before and, more importantly, are fully available to you. While I would hesitate to say anything that is in the slightest way beneficial about this pandemic, the truth is that it has strengthened the ties among our campuses, enabled faculty to develop new teaching skills and techniques, and brought their insights and connections to a much wider world. And it has taught all of us a hard but invaluable lesson about resilience.

This will be a different semester than in the past, for sure, but you will look back on it in future years as being unique, and ultimately, as much a growth and educational experience as any experienced by previous generations of students.


Eliot A. Cohen, Dean