Fall 2021 Updates

Fall 2021 Updates from Columbia University Administration

The following message was sent to the Columbia community March 17, 2021. Please note: this message has been edited for clarity regarding the fall term. 

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:
I am writing this at the moment of the one-year anniversary of the onset of the pandemic in New York. Life before that now seems innocent in comparison to what we have endured since. What was taken for granted now seems more precious than ever. The entire world has suffered a lethal and arduous challenge beyond the worst we feared. Each person has lived their own version of this reality—hardships and frustrations along with unexpected revelations, but, for far too many, the tragic loss of family and friends. We join in mourning and memorializing the more than 30,000 residents of our City who died due to the coronavirus. 
With this anniversary, however, comes the need to look ahead to the coming year and to plan. There is a practical side of deciding about events and life’s schedules, but also an emotional side of girding ourselves for what remains to be done to be rid of the pandemic. Life’s plans are always best thought of as provisional, but life under COVID-19 has reached new levels of persistent uncertainty. In this period, our minds are attuned to things like the pace and uptake of vaccinations, the implications of new virus variants, and the trajectory of the coronavirus in our City and State. With caveats for the uncertainties ahead, I want to share two decisions about two specific issues ahead of us—our Commencement activities and our return to university life in the fall.
Let me begin with a note of optimism. Hope is always the essential element of resilience, and there are now grounds for hope. As we all know, President Biden has just announced national goals of having vaccinations available for all adults in the country by May 1st and of being able to gather in small groups to celebrate July 4th. In addition, we are heartened by promising evidence of vaccination plans globally, which, of course, has enormous implications for achieving equity and fairness in a time of crisis and for health generally in our very interconnected world. There is progress, provided there is a sustained commitment to our well-known health protocols. 
Now I want to turn to the fall term. By then, we expect to have the capacity and supply to vaccinate all Columbia affiliates. Many students, faculty, and staff will have been vaccinated in other locations, including abroad. This and other actions against the coronavirus mean that our goal is to return to normal University life in September. This means the resumption of in-person academic activities across our campuses, for teaching to take place in our classrooms, for undergraduates to be housed in our residence halls, for research and service work to resume, and for our calendar to return to its familiar rhythm. We are dedicated to coming as close to this reality as is safely possible, recognizing that events beyond our control may intervene and that we will need to have an adequate and sympathetic accommodation process in place for faculty, staff, and students, especially our international students who may not be able to return to campus. 
In other words, the fall will be, as much as humanly possible, our homecoming. 
Of course, there will be many more communications on all these matters in the coming weeks and months. For now, Jean and I send our gratitude and admiration. 
Lee C. Bollinger

The following message was sent to the Columbia community April 26, 2021.

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Working groups on education, facilities and campus life, research, and public health were formed one year ago to help navigate Columbia during the pandemic. Following difficult decisions for the remainder of 2020 and the spring 2021 term about dormitories, dining, travel, gatherings, library access, and the character of classroom instruction, these committees, reporting to the President’s Task Force on COVID-19, were asked to protect public health and consider how best to maintain our commitments to excellent teaching, top-tier research, outstanding clinical care, and critical programs by crafting and recommending compelling policies and making operational decisions.

As planning proceeds for the fall, every step taken will continue to be governed by our highest priority: campus safety. It is a source of satisfaction and collective pride that, in this respect, Columbia has led the way nationally. Strategic choices to regulate density in our labs, ensure distancing in our classrooms and in other spaces, indoors and out, launch a carefully designed testing and tracing program, together with a heartening collective commitment to the Columbia Compact, have generated compliance, responsibility, and good outcomes.

At Columbia, our COVID-19 testing stands out as an instrument and as a measure of relative well-being. More than 220,000 samples have been taken since June 2020. Together with wastewater analysis, the tests conducted at the Black Building (CUIMC) and Lerner Hall (Morningside) have enabled a rapid identification of cases and contacts and have provided critical surveillance data confirming campus welfare. Overall, less than 0.5% of persons tested have had a positive result. This level compares favorably to significantly higher rates in the city, the metropolitan area, and the state, indeed across the country as a whole.

Our expectations for the fall are being shaped by the now widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines on our campuses and in ColumbiaDoctors locations, as well as confidence in the other protective measures put in place. Just last week, the University decided to mandate vaccinations by the fall for all students, undergraduate and graduate. For them, and indeed for all faculty and staff, the University is providing cost-free vaccination. We strongly encourage all our affiliates to take advantage of this availability as soon as possible.

Looking ahead, our four existing working groups have been joined by a fifth that is addressing the new work environment. All have been ramping up efforts to judge how best to rebuild campus density. With their direction, some important policy decisions have been made. In addition to those that concern the presence of teachers, students, and staff, and the vaccination mandate for students, these include guidelines for summer travel and guidelines for visitors participating in academic activities. These temporary limitations are intended to make a fuller campus life achievable and safe.

In tandem with public health developments, more decisions and communication will follow about the reopening and organization of facilities, the scale of gatherings, classroom scheduling and technology, athletics, laboratory and office space densities, and important aspects of work situations. All this will happen in the context of public health indicators and milestones.

Please watch for updates in the coming weeks. Like our community as a whole, we eagerly anticipate a steady and secure return to an increasingly robust Columbia. For now, let us celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of the many thousands of citizens of the University—near and far—who have been navigating hard times, and offer a warm salute to the graduates concluding their studies. The Lion roars.

With appreciation,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History

Donna Lynne
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Chief Executive Officer, ColumbiaDoctors
University COVID Director

The following message was sent to the Columbia community May 11, 2021.

Dear Student,

On April 19, 2021, the University announced its decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all students, undergraduate and graduate, by the start of the Fall 2021 term. This decision was informed by the now widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines on our campuses and across the country, as well as confidence in the other protective measures put in place. As President Bollinger stated earlier this term, our goal is to return to normal University life in September while protecting the health and well-being of our community; a vaccinated student population will be critical to making this a reality.

How the requirement works
Students who intend to access campus for any reason at any time beginning Fall 2021, including those registered only for online courses, must be vaccinated before being granted access to University campuses and facilities, as well as participation at in-person University-recognized activities. This requirement applies regardless of the purpose, duration, or frequency of planned access to facilities or participation with in-person activities.

Any student who fails to complete the requirement or has not received a medical or religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine shall not be permitted to access University facilities nor engage in any in-person University recognized activities.

Students, graduate and undergraduate, living in University-owned buildings are required to complete the vaccine process at least 14 days prior to their move in, with limited exceptions.

Employees that are registered for any classes, including online and audit only, are considered students and must comply with the vaccine requirement. This requirement applies even if the primary purpose for access to University facilities is a role other than student.

How to complete the requirement
Students can submit their vaccine documentation via the Columbia Health Patient Portal. Columbia University accepts all vaccines recognized as safe and effective according to the World Health Organization.

We encourage students to upload their documentation as soon as possible. All students are expected to complete the vaccine process at least 14 days before first accessing University facilities or participating with in-person, University-approved activities to ensure they are considered fully vaccinated at the time of first access. In Fall 2021, all students are also required to register (new students) or update (continuing students) their Meningitis decision. Please register your decision in the Columbia Health Patient Portal when you submit your COVID-19 documentation.

Completion of the vaccine process is defined as:

  • At least 14 days after the second dose of a two-dose vaccine
  • At least 14 days after receiving a single dose vaccine (currently only the Janssen/Johnson&Johnson vaccine)

In limited situations where a student has difficulty accessing an approved vaccine, the student can receive the vaccine from the University at no out-of-pocket cost.  Until fully vaccinated (as defined above), such students will be required to comply with additional COVID-19 testing requirements and other preventive measures in place at that time.

Religious or Medical Exemptions
Columbia is committed to providing a safe, inclusive, and supportive experience for all students. The University recognizes student observance of their faith as it pertains to the practice of immunization and limited medical contraindications to certain vaccinations. Personal and philosophical objections to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement are not permitted; requests based on personal or philosophical reasons will be denied.

Students wishing to request an exemption must submit the required request forms via the Columbia Health Patient Portal. Exemption requests will not be considered if incomplete documentation is received. Students with approved exemptions for other vaccines must submit a new and separate request for the COVID-19 vaccine.

All requests are considered and reviewed, but approval is not guaranteed. Decisions are final, not subject to appeal, and will be shared in a determination letter sent to your University email.  Students may submit a new request with new supporting documentation.

Students must submit their exemption request at least 30 business days before their first planned campus access. Late submissions will not be expedited. Please note that all exemptions are temporary and must be renewed as noted in the instructions and determination letter.

Access to Vaccination
Information on how to schedule an appointment—whether through New York City or through the University—can be found on the vaccine information page of the COVID-19 website.

We hope that you will join us on Thursday, May 13, from 4:00-5:00 PM ET for our next University Life Forum: COVID-19 Update, Vaccines and Planning for Fall Return. This conversation is an opportunity to learn about the University’s ongoing response to the pandemic, vaccine availability and requirements, and more.

Continue to check the Columbia University COVID-19 website periodically over the coming weeks to stay up to date.  We appreciate your participation in this key step that is critical to a successful and safe return to campus in the Fall term.

Be well,

Melanie J Bernitz
Senior Vice President, Columbia Health
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)

The following message was sent to the Columbia community May 17, 2021.

Dear Faculty, Students, and Staff:

I write today to inform you of a change to the academic calendar for the fall 2021 semester. 

The first day of classes for the fall semester will be Thursday, September 9, 2021. This is a change from the previously published calendar, with classes now starting two days later than originally scheduled. The fall Change of Program period will, therefore, start on Thursday, September 9th, and extend to Tuesday, September 21st. Students will have the usual nine days in which to select their classes and determine their final fall schedules.

This year, the return to campus carries particular significance and is unique in that we will have many students entering campus for the first time. We are implementing this calendar adjustment from our strong desire that all Columbia students can begin this post-COVID academic year together, both within their entering cohorts and as a University community. 

If instruction were to begin immediately following Labor Day, many in our University community would be absent in celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Holding classes on a religious holiday is quite normative at Columbia. This decision thus represents an exception to ensure that this most welcome return will include everyone. 

Outside of this change, the academic calendar proceeds as originally planned. I am certainly available with any questions you might have as is the entire team in the Office of the University Registrar. You may write to ssc@columbia.edu or call our offices at: 212-854-4400.

I look forward to seeing you all on campus.


Barry S. Kane
Associate Vice President and University Registrar
Columbia University in the City of New York

The following message was sent to the Columbia community June 3, 2021.

Dear Students:

With a registration window starting for many of you next week, I wanted to update you on some important course attributes and functionality that will affect your registration and enrollment.

As we plan for the fall semester, our guidance from public health experts has significantly changed the instructional landscape. Because Columbia is requiring all affiliates to be fully vaccinated, coupled with an ongoing testing program, public health guidance has determined that all of our students can be back on campus this fall. In addition, we anticipate that all of our classrooms will return to full density with no social distancing required. Because of these changes, the University expects that all instruction will be offered In-Person, that students will once again participate in their classes on-campus, and that Faculty will be teaching from their assigned classroom locations.

When you are registering next week, you will therefore not see any Methods of Instruction identified for fall courses. The reason for this is that most courses are now being offered on an In-Person basis only (there will, of course, be some exceptions for courses that have always been offered in an On-Line or Hybrid format). You will also not be asked how you prefer to enroll in your courses because the expectation is that you will be participating in person. Later in the summer and as we approach the start of the fall semester, it could be that some courses may be offered on a Hybrid basis because of required changes in the density of our classrooms (depending on Public Health requirements) or because of the need to accommodate our international students who may be experiencing difficulty securing visas for travel to the United States. I will keep you apprised of these changes and how they will affect your registration and course enrollment.

If you have any questions regarding the conduct of registration next week, write to us at: ssc@columnbia.edu 

Have a great weekend.


Barry S. Kane
Associate Vice President and University Registrar
Columbia University in the City of New York