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COVID-19 UPDATE: Winter Return and Lessons Learned

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Jeremy Haefner

News  •

Message Highlights

  • We fully intend to provide on-campus living and learning this winter and spring.
  • Informed by lessons learned from the fall and the success of other institutions, DU will increase mandatory testing for COVID-19 and will now include saliva and antigen testing.
  • In some cases, DU will implement shorter quarantine windows due to new guidance by the CDC.
  • DU is developing plans for the eventual distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The new Community Commons will be open for winter term, offering new options for dining and studying, as well as more opportunities to gather safely.
  • Information is available on our COVID-19 website about three steps to take before returning to campus for the winter term.
  • Next week, you will receive an additional, more detailed communication about the winter return.

Dear DU community members,

I am pleased to provide an update on the University’s plans for the winter and spring terms.

From the data we collected, DU was quite successful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 during the fall term. While the city of Denver’s positivity rate reached nearly 13 percent this fall, DU’s positivity never rose above 6.3 percent. And, over the course of the fall term, DU’s positivity rate was even lower, averaging 2.8 percent. Additionally, our testing and contact tracing was quick, efficient, and effective. I am proud of us, all of us, for working so hard to protect one another. Thank you.

I also want to confirm that after a very careful review of the data and lessons learned from the fall term, we fully intend to provide on-campus living and learning in the winter and spring terms. We will continue to offer a combination of learning modalities, including in-person, to best meet our students’ preferences and circumstances.

Lessons Learned from Fall 2020

There has also been a considerable review of the University’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy. Data and analysis from the fall term has provided insight into how we can improve for the coming winter term.

Our first significant finding is perhaps not surprising: There was a large discrepancy in the positivity rate for different groups.

  • Only 1% of faculty tested positive for the virus over the fall.
  • For staff and graduate students, the positivity rate was just 4%.
  • Residential undergraduate students saw a higher rate—11%.
  • Athletes and those in fraternity and sorority housing showed still much higher rates of positivity, 21% and 31% respectively.

To gain still greater insight, we contacted 98 other colleges and universities—some of which had great success at mitigating the spread of the virus. It is clear that the most successful institutions had mandatory and much more frequent testing, especially for groups with higher rates of positivity.

Testing in the Winter Term

Given what we have learned, and with guidance offered by our health care partner, National Jewish Health, we will increase the frequency of testing for COVID-19. Most importantly, we will increase testing for groups that showed a higher rate of positivity. We are fortunate because we will be able to use three test types: nasal PCR, saliva PCR, and nasal antigen. You can learn more about these test types here. The campus will follow the COVID-19 testing schedule below for the winter:


Testing Frequency

Residential students

Two tests per week

Non-residential undergrad students learning on campus

One test per week

Graduate students learning on campus

One test every other week

Faculty and staff working on campus

One test every third week

Athletes, coaches, referees and other core training staff

Three antigen tests per week (as required by NCAA)

I understand this testing schedule is rigorous, especially for our undergraduate students. By greatly increasing our use of the less invasive saliva testing method, we hope this schedule will be comfortable and convenient. Most importantly, we expect that by increasing testing frequency to this extent, we will significantly reduce the spread of the virus. Such a reduction protects the health and wellbeing of the community. The increased testing will also allow DU to offer students an experience as close to normal as possible, with less folks in quarantine and isolation and more opportunities for in-person social engagement. Please note that faculty, staff and graduate students are welcome to test more frequently if they so choose.

While we are confident that our enhanced testing strategy will improve control of the virus on campus, ultimately individual behavior is what will determine infection rates. We know that when people wear masks and correctly social-distance, disease spread is minimized. One example is that we had no identified instances of transmission in classrooms. However, when people gather indoors, especially without masks, disease spread is likely. 

Quarantine Requirements in the Winter Term

Quarantining was one of the most challenging aspects of the fall term for our students—especially in cases where multiple exposures resulted in multiple quarantines.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently changed its quarantine guidance. In certain cases, this change will allow DU to reduce its required quarantine window from 14 days to just 7. You can find more information on the various quarantine windows and their requirements here.

We are also exploring ways to improve and/or expand upon our support services to attend better to the overall wellbeing of those adhering to our quarantine and isolation requirements.

Planning for the COVID-19 Vaccine

The University—in consultation with National Jewish Health—is developing plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccines to the community.

In the beginning of the new year, we will distribute a survey about the COVID-19 vaccine to understand the community’s perspectives on the subject. We will also establish a vaccine working group with National Jewish Health; this group will be charged with developing the campus implementation process for the vaccine.

For now, we encourage anyone with access to the vaccine to become immunized as soon as possible (barring any contraindications or religious or philosophical objections). Check with your health care provider for advice and information about vaccine availability.

Return to Campus for the Winter Term

While I look forward to the coming holiday break, I am also eager to begin the winter term. I have incredible faith in the plans outlined above and their ability to keep us healthy. In addition, DU remains committed to providing our students with the best possible educational experience. In the coming terms, Student Affairs and Inclusive Excellence will offer engaging and innovative ways to connect—a continuation of their work this past fall, which resulted in nearly 400 social opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.

When we return in January, our new, spacious Community Commons will be open. This innovative space could not come at a better time, as its opening will increase our ability to gather safely—including in beautiful outdoor spaces. The entire community will enjoy new and centralized dining options, as well as spaces to study, attend online or hybrid classes, and much more. I can’t wait to see you all there.

Before we can enjoy our work and classes, new spaces and campus this winter, everyone must follow the three-step return-to-campus process. 

What do I need to do to return to campus?

  1. If you have not already done so, get your flu vaccine
  2. Complete a 10-day quarantine and log your dates
  3. Receive and provide a negative COVID-19 test

Find detailed information about these steps on our dedicated COVID-19 website. You will also receive a more detailed message about the return to campus next week.

Thanks again to the countless people working diligently every day to ensure DU is doing all it can to keep our community safe while also providing the educational experience for which we are known and respected. I look forward to the New Year and the promise of a better, healthier world for all.


Jeremy Haefner