Northwestern’s COVID-19 Timeline: A close look at how the pandemic impacted University life


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Masks became optional in Northwestern classrooms on March 29, 2022, the start of Spring Quarter. The announcement marks a line on the two-year trek of COVID-19.

Nora Collins, Reporter

Just over two years ago, classes went remote, most students went home and Northwestern’s campuses began to feel the effects of COVID-19. The Daily summarized major COVID-related developments as they impacted students, faculty and staff.

March 4-6, 2020: University puts limitations on travel

As COVID-19 spread to more than 40 countries, University administrators canceled all University-sponsored international spring break trips and discouraged nonessential international travel for faculty and staff.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued Level 3 Travel Health Advisories, canceling all University-related travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea, and NU announces a new self-isolation policy for those traveling to the U.S from other countries. 

Administrators canceled Dance Marathon two days prior to its planned start date. A Northwestern student studying abroad in Florence, Italy returns to the U.S. and quarantines for potential exposure. 

March 11-13, 2020: University begins to transition online, announces first COVID-19 case

University President Morton Schapiro announced all Spring Quarter classes will be held remotely for at least three weeks and Spring Break would be extended by one week. 

Northwestern’s Global Learning Office canceled Spring Quarter study abroad programs and advised graduate students to reassess their travel. The Big Ten Conference canceled all competitions through the end of the academic year. 

University administrators strongly encouraged faculty members to not hold in-person finals and group gatherings of 50 or more people where social distancing is not possible were canceled. As NU announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case, Associated Student Government transitioned to online meetings.

March 15-26, 2020: NU community adjusts to quarantined life

Former Provost Jonathan Holloway announced all undergraduate professors must make finals optional. Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a “stay-at-home” order for the state.

Schapiro issued a statement to all NU students regarding cancellations of study abroad, Dance Marathon and University plans for Spring Quarter. Summer 2020 study abroad programs were canceled. Over 3,300 students signed a petition for partial refunds for Spring Quarter tuition, resulting in undergraduates receiving refunds for Spring Quarter housing, dining and fees.

I wish I knew when things will return to normal,” Schapiro wrote in his March 20 letter to NU students. The pandemic has been likened to a war, and no one can credibly say when it will end … My most fervent prayer is to see you all again soon.”

June 19, 2020: Graduation events are moved online

Commencement ceremonies and graduation-related events were held online for the Class of 2020. The University announced it intends to hold in-person graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020 in Spring 2021.

Aug. 28 – Sept. 1, 2020: University clarifies plans for fall

Administrators announced updated plans for Fall Quarter 2020, stating first- and second-year undergraduates are not allowed on campus and are discouraged from moving to the Evanston area during Fall Quarter. NU offered incoming freshmen and transfer students expanded deferral options and reduced tuition by 10% in response to feedback regarding Fall Quarter changes.

Jan. 3, 2021: Undergraduates are welcomed to campus 

Freshmen and sophomores moved to campus for the first time. January Wildcat Wellness, a modified quarantine period for students, ran from Jan. 3 2021 to Jan. 17 2021. During Wildcat Wellness, all classes and co-curricular activities are remote while students isolated in their residences, completed COVID-19 tests on-campus and ate via grab-and-go dining services to avoid congregate settings.

At the end of Wildcat Wellness, classes began meeting mostly online, though some were hybrid or in person. All undergraduate students had to be tested weekly, consistent with Fall Quarter testing guidelines.

“We look forward to the start of Winter Quarter, and whether you will study from afar, return to campus, or come to campus as students for the first time, know that you are cherished members of our Northwestern community,” Provost Kathleen Hagerty, Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier and current Vice President for Operations Luke Figora wrote in a joint statement.

April 12, 2021: Students become vaccine-eligible, following faculty and staff 

NU students became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. NU faculty and staff became eligible in the weeks prior, by March 29 at the latest.

May 12, 2021: NU announces vaccine mandate 

Administrators announced students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the 2021-2022 academic year. Fully vaccinated individuals were no longer required to wear masks outdoors, unless in a large group setting. 

Sept. 22-30, 2021: Wildcat Welcome, classes resume in-person

Wildcat Welcome activities for the Class of 2025 and transfer students took place in person. All undergraduates were welcomed to return to campus, and were required to complete one COVID-19 test, regardless of vaccination status. Masking requirements remained in effect in all indoor campus spaces. NU researchers developed a 100% accurate, antigen-based COVID-19 test.

December 20, 2021: University announces COVID-19 booster requirement

In response to the spread of the omicron variant, NU announced a COVID-19 booster requirement as well as a Wildcat Wellness period in January at the beginning of Winter Quarter.

February 28-March 15, 2022: Masks become optional on campus

Masks became optional starting Feb. 28 in administrative spaces, research labs, public spaces, public events, athletic facilities, residence halls, libraries and the Norris University Center . Masks remained required in classrooms, lab-based classes, University health settings and campus shuttles until March 15, when masks became optional. The University still recommended masking in areas where social distancing is not feasible.