6.10.20: The Opening of Lehigh, Fall Semester 2020

A message from President Simon, Provost Farrell, and incoming Provost Urban. 

Dear Members of the Lehigh Community,

Governor Wolf recently moved Northampton County, the home of Lehigh University, from the red phase—and the original stay-at-home order—to the yellow phase of the Commonwealth’s Process to Reopen Pennsylvania plan. This is exciting and hopeful news for all of us, as it indicates the number of confirmed cases of the virus in our region is declining, which allows us to begin a phased opening.

Since spring break, the Lehigh campus has been closed. Students, faculty and staff have learned and worked remotely and only a small number of essential personnel and a cohort of students who were unable to return to their homes have been allowed on campus. This change to the Commonwealth’s yellow phase enables Lehigh to begin to open campus and re-establish academic activity on campus, starting with the resumption of faculty and graduate student research.

As conditions in the valley continue to rapidly improve, we are now looking to the resumption of in-person instruction and on-campus housing in August, subject to restrictions on classroom and housing capacity necessitated by social distancing. After a hiatus of over five months, we look forward to welcoming our students, faculty and staff back to our campuses as we begin a phased return.

It is important to note that the fall semester will not be a normal semester. To support the Lehigh experience in a pandemic, we all must commit to taking concrete steps to support the health and safety of our community.

As we come back together, we must also advance the work of combating racism at Lehigh and in society. Faculty, staff and students will be engaged individually and collectively in this important work. There will be further communication. Anti-racism actions are a crucial focus at Lehigh now and moving forward.

Health and Safety

As we return to campus, the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, as well as our neighbors in Bethlehem, are of the greatest importance. Our planning for resuming the residential academic experience is focused on creating the conditions that will allow us to do so safely.

We continue to closely follow developing guidance provided by governmental agencies, the American College Health Association (ACHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and our health professionals in developing policies and protocols conducive to sustaining health and safety on campus. These efforts involve implementing strategies to integrate social distancing across different areas of the campus, self-screening protocols, COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students, faculty and staff, and contact tracing for identified cases; identifying housing options for isolation and quarantine as may become needed; and enhancing cleaning and disinfection processes. These are all necessary components in promoting health and limiting the spread of the coronavirus. We continue to seek advice and input from health experts as we work closely with our local healthcare networks.

Based on current guidelines and expert advice, we are planning for many changes in campus operations. Cleaning and sanitation procedures will be increased in frequency and intensity. We are identifying areas within our residential spaces that can be used to isolate students who either test positive for COVID-19 or who are exposed to others requiring isolation. Our Health and Wellness Center staff continues to track the continually evolving recommendations in the prevention, evaluation and management of COVID-19 through consultation with healthcare agencies and partners. Integration of these evolving best practices will continue to be implemented across the University.

Self-monitoring and temperature checks of all campus community members will be used to identify symptomatic individuals who should stay home. We are working to provide rapid access to COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students, faculty and staff.

Classroom and lab space will be modified to comply with social distancing requirements, and we are preparing to repurpose larger facilities, such as Zoellner Arts Center, the Rauch Fieldhouse and Stabler Arena, for academic use. Every area of operation, from dining to transportation, is being assessed and modified to adhere to prevention measures. Our commitment to our community is to put into place the currently recommended best practices to promote health and safety on campus.

The Educational Experience

We plan to begin the academic semester on August 24, as scheduled, and to complete in-person instruction by Thanksgiving. Remote instruction after Thanksgiving will likely be needed to complete fall courses.

As we plan for the structured opening of campus, we recognize that not all of our students can physically return for all or part of the semester. For our international students, visa processing and travel delays could create barriers to coming to campus, and for those who live in other parts of the United States, a resurgence of the virus at home could prevent a safe return to campus. It is also certain that individual medical or other extenuating circumstances will impact some students, faculty and staff, requiring them to learn or work remotely.

For these reasons, the majority of our fall curriculum will be offered in a way that works both for those who are on campus and also for those who are unable to be present in our classrooms. To ensure that all of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students can continue their Lehigh education, we are investing to enhance the learning experience for our students and to help our faculty and instructors offer an outstanding education. We learned a tremendous amount about remote learning from the spring semester, not just from our experiences, but also from others across the higher education community, and we will greatly enhance our online and remote capabilities in the fall.

This approach will also allow us to be prepared if another outbreak occurs or state guidance forces us to stop in-person instruction, as happened in March.

Whatever the mode of delivery, we will not compromise the high-quality education for which Lehigh is rightly known, and we will ensure students who need or want to learn remotely can participate fully in the Lehigh experience and make uninterrupted progress toward their degrees.

The same approach applies to co-curricular learning. Our residential educational model fosters the personal development and social growth that is integral to a Lehigh education. Here too, our commitment is to deliver the Lehigh experience equitably in the remote environment. To that end, our Student Affairs team is working to deliver high-impact residential experiences and critical support services for both those who are and are not on campus. 

Our commitment is to deliver the Lehigh experience equitably so all students have the resources they need to progress, thrive and be prepared to succeed in the post-COVID world.

The On-Campus Residential Experience

Lehigh created four task forces that are working on how we open our campus, deliver a high-quality educational experience, address the financial implications of the pandemic and look to the future to ensure Lehigh emerges from this extraordinary time an even stronger University. Additional planning information will be made available on our website. We have received valuable feedback from students, parents, faculty and staff in the past several weeks that has guided the work of our planning task forces, and we continue to welcome comments and suggestions at inopen@lehigh.edu.

As you might expect, there is a wide divergence of opinion about the best path forward, ranging from the view that we should be ready to fully open now, to the view that the coming academic year should be entirely remote. These varying perspectives are based upon predictions or assumptions about various factors, including the course of COVID-19, the slowing or cessation of its spread, the availability of accurate testing, and ultimately, the development of a vaccine. We must be able to adapt if, and as, conditions change.

We recognize that students and parents are seeking more detailed information about the on-campus residential experience they can expect for fall, and we are working to provide those answers. To start, we will be moving forward with the second-year student housing selection process, which was delayed, and will continue to guarantee housing for first- and second-year students. Additional information will be forthcoming from Housing Services.

To maintain needed residential space for the fall, we have decided not to raze the Trembley Park Apartment Complex as planned. Instead, Trembley Park will be available as a housing option this coming academic year. Once we determine the number of students who wish to return and live on campus, there may be a reduction in the number of beds available in residence halls due to COVID-19 restrictions. We are working with hotels to provide for additional beds for the semester if needed.

For juniors and seniors who signed contracts for living on campus or indicated housing needs, Housing Services will be working with you to determine next steps, including for those who selected the Singleton, Hitch & Maida Houses. As of today, it is anticipated that because of the suspension of construction in the Commonwealth, these three new residence halls will now be completed in the fall instead of August.

Fraternity and sorority chapter houses will continue to be occupied by our Greek communities. Themed housing will also be offered, but availability will be dependent on the capacity of each house.

Housing Services will be sending a survey to all students to collect additional information and to determine the best path forward for meeting individual housing needs.

The Semester Will Be Different

All of us need to understand that the fall semester will be different and will require us to take individual and collective responsibility and to use our ingenuity and creativity. Testing and contact tracing are only a piece of our strategy. Each of us has a role, and we will need to work with one another to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in our community.

Steps to protect the community will involve four pillars: social distancing, cloth face coverings, personal hygiene and self-monitoring of symptoms with a strict stay-at-home policy for those who are sick. These measures taken by each member of our community serve to protect all of us collectively and enable us to fulfill our mission as a residential educational institution. In addition, our entire campus will receive ongoing training about the coronavirus and how to keep our University community safe. We believe that lessons about community and resilience will be some of the most important that we all gain this fall.

While some details remain to be determined as we continue to learn from health experts and others, some are already evident. We will limit the size of gatherings, and many traditional events that unify our campus will not be able to occur next year in their usual form or at all. We will update the community when more information is available for this year’s postponed Commencement ceremony. Large lectures will almost certainly be conducted online, creating the opportunity for students and faculty to learn from one another in different ways. Social events held in person will require physical distancing measures and others will continue to grow and flourish online. The move-in process to our residence halls and houses will be structured to minimize close contact among people arriving in buildings at the same time. Dining on campus will include strict guidelines, and the grab-and-go options will be expanded. Libraries, informal gathering spaces, recreational facilities and residence hall common areas will have restrictions to comply with social distancing. Returning and new students, as well as all faculty and staff, will be required to complete training and acknowledge that they agree to uphold these community standards before returning to campus. These processes will feel different, and perhaps uncomfortable, but are necessary to protect our community.

Our entire community must commit to acting in a manner that respects medical guidance and University policies that are designed to protect the health and safety of all. We owe it to each other and should keep in mind that practicing appropriate behavior, both on campus and outside of Lehigh, protects ourselves and those around us.

Our confidence that Lehigh can deliver an excellent in-person academic experience this coming fall relies upon our collective efforts to assure a safe environment.

In the coming weeks, we look forward to sharing additional information for bringing this plan to fruition. And we especially look forward to August when students, faculty and staff are back on campus.



John D. Simon ’19P



Patrick V. Farrell

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs


Nathan N. Urban

Incoming Provost