July 9, 2020 at 4:18 p.m.

Fall 2020 at CSSW

Dear CSSW Community,

At a moment when our nation faces the continued spread of COVID-19 and other profound societal challenges, we at the Columbia School of Social Work, the oldest social work school in the country, find ourselves more energized than ever before. These crises have shown how important trained social workers are to our society, and have motivated us to find novel ways to deliver the same rigorous educational programming for which our School has always been known.

On Tuesday, July 7, President Bollinger announced the University’s plans for the coming academic year. In his message he indicated that graduate and professional schools will have the flexibility to design their own reopening plans, taking into account the nature of their coursework and discipline, as well as the preferences of students and faculty.

On the same day as his statement was released, our School posted a comprehensive FAQ for admitted and incoming students covering questions on orientation, registration, online coursework, financial aid, housing, and international study, among other areas. In tandem with Bollinger’s announcement, I write to you with further updates and clarifications on CSSW’s planning process.

Classroom and Practicum Learning updates

As outlined in my June 22 message to the admitted and incoming students, the health of our community remains of paramount importance. After considerable thought and discussion, CSSW has decided to offer its coursework primarily online, with a selection of key courses offered in-person, which will be clearly designated as such in the online directory of classes. This hybrid instructional approach gives greater flexibility to our MSW and PhD students as they pursue their studies this fall. Additionally, students in the New York City area will be able to engage in on-the-ground research and volunteer opportunities whenever possible and safe, consistent with the latest public health guidance.

Our approach to Practicum Learning mirrors our plans outlined for coursework. Our Office of Practicum Learning is working with its partners to develop a flexible suite of field placement options, so that placements can be completely virtual when necessary but can also shift to in-person activities whenever public health conditions allow. In the process of exploring our options, we have discovered some exciting new opportunities for our students to learn how to engage clients remotely through telehealth or other digital technologies, for which we will provide training.

What do we mean by “when public health conditions allow?” It is important to remember that the situation is continually evolving. Fortunately, CSSW has the advantage of an established Online Campus and considerable in-house expertise. Many of our faculty members have already taught online and many are engaged this summer in robust training programs that emphasize best practices in interactive and effective teaching approaches. The School also has taken the step of assigning every faculty member additional technical support staff for courses to be offered remotely, in preparation for the fall semester. We are confident that we can offer a rewarding learning experience in every learning format.

Addressing new ICE restrictions

On July 7, President Bollinger issued a statement in response to the advance notice provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of federal rules that will require international students with F visas to leave the United States if their course of study is entirely online. The University announced earlier today that, together with other institutions, it is working on an amicus brief to be filed as a legal challenge to these new rules. As I mentioned in my statement sent Tuesday, we are keenly aware of the deep impact of this policy on our international students, who are a cherished and vital part of our community. We continue to work diligently with the University in analyzing the implications of the updated federal guidelines while also looking to develop solutions to enable our international students to start or continue with their studies. We are already in the process of surveying our students to determine their present and planned locations this fall to inform our thinking. We will meet with the Student Union to ensure that student voices are heard throughout our deliberations. We plan to make another announcement on this point by Wednesday of next week to let the community know where we are in our planning process.

In the meantime, students with any immigration or visa-related questions should contact the International Students and Scholars Office for guidance. ISSO is carefully reviewing the new fall 2020 immigration guidance and is actively working to mitigate the impact on international students.

International students at CSSW will have an opportunity next week to interface with administrators at ISSO, when they will be partnering with our Offices of Student Life and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion to offer a town hall (day and time forthcoming, via email).

Public health and safety measures for returning to campus

As Columbia issues its reopening plans, it is important to bear in mind that higher education institutions are not permitted to resume in-person instruction until New York City reaches the desired stage of its reopening plan. As President Bollinger indicated, “If New York City has not entered Phase 4 by August 15, we will determine if it will be necessary to make changes to our fall term plans.”

Meanwhile, the University continues to work across its schools and campuses to ensure a safe return to campus life. The University-wide COVID-19 Task Force has generated a document library: a single, easily accessible site with helpful references for the Columbia community.

In recognition that returning to campus life will require each of us to commit to a common set of health and safety protocols, President Bollinger announced the creation of the Columbia Community Health Compact, to be affirmed by each individual, whether they are a student, a faculty member, or an administrator, before coming on campus. At the heart of the Compact is the ethos that each member of our community is responsible to abide by these protocols not only to protect themselves, but also to protect others.

CSSW is committed to complying with all applicable governmental and University-wide measures designed to protect the health and safety of the community, as well as visitors, while on campus. These protocols, which have been developed in consultation with leading public health experts, include:

  • Wear a face covering over one’s nose and mouth at all times, except when alone in a private office or in an enclosed room with the door closed.
  • Keep at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) distance between oneself and other people whenever possible.
  • Follow signage and guidance on use of campus spaces.
  • Stay home if not feeling well.
  • Follow workplace and shared-space hygiene (wipe workplace surfaces used frequently, including desk surfaces, keyboards, light switches, and shared equipment such as copiers, printers, A/V, etc.) with disinfectant sprays or wipes that the University will provide. Columbia staff will do frequent specialized cleaning of high-touch surfaces throughout campus.

In addition, we have begun to make a number of adjustments to the Social Work Building, including signage to safely manage the flow of foot, stair, and elevator traffic.

Support for students

CSSW’s wide array of support services for students—including career counseling, advising, practicum, and financial aid, as well as its robust racial justice programs and affinity group support spaces offered by our Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion—will continue to be available to students throughout the academic year.

Since the pandemic began, the School has made available emergency financial support through the CSSW Student Emergency Relief Fund to those of our current students who are experiencing insecurity as a result of the global health crisis.

Support for staff and faculty

Many of our staff and faculty have been asking about work arrangements this fall, and any requirements to be on-site. At CSSW, we have adopted the position for now that any work that can be successfully done remotely should continue to be done remotely. We realize that some jobs can be performed only on-site, or require on-site work at least part of the time. Please be sure to consult your supervisor if you have any questions about your own situation.

We recognize the extraordinary challenges many of our employees face in trying to harmonize work with family responsibilities under the current remote work arrangements and school and child care disruptions. The University is giving this issue close consideration. In addition, I am working with my Dean’s Office colleagues, Julien Teitler and Gerard Bueno, to appoint a working group with broad, school-wide representation to advise senior administrators on ways the School can be most supportive.

Additional resources

The University’s COVID-19 Resource Guide continues to be updated with the most recent information. Likewise, the School’s senior administration team is committed to continuing its ongoing efforts to communicate regularly, so be sure to check your email and the COVID-19 section of the School’s website.


As the summer progresses, I encourage all of our CSSW community to remain flexible as we monitor how conditions on the ground develop. We cannot foresee all that lies between now and the start of Orientation in the last week of August. But whatever happens, I am excited to welcome you to a new academic year.

This fall, in particular, heralds a vibrant time for our School. Our community has just announced a new Social Work Action Lab for Social Justice, which offers students and members of our community a chance to take action in addressing the most pressing issues of our time through education, scholarship, and public advocacy. And, as announced by President Bollinger, our School is working with the School of General Studies and Mailman School of Public Health to develop a co-curricular academy on justice and pandemic preparedness. These are just a couple of examples of the many ways in which CSSW continues to contribute to the University and surrounding communities.

I wish you all the best for a healthy and productive summer, and I look forward to seeing you—whether in person, virtually, or both—this fall.

In community,