Presbyterian seminaries respond to COVID-19 with caution, preparation

March 12, 2020 by Robyn Davis Sekula

Editor’s Note: This story was written and posted on Thursday, March 12. Situations have changed since this initial article was written. We will update this story as we are able.

Presbyterian seminaries are taking action to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and thinking through what the spread of the virus might mean for future events.

Many universities and colleges across the nation have decided to have extended spring breaks and move all instruction following spring break to online only to help stop the spread of the virus.

Every seminary has created groups or task forces to discuss what measures should be taken. And all campus leaders encourage thorough and frequent hand-washing. Each seminary has stressed that the situation is rapidly changing, and students, faculty and staff should be watching their email for information as the virus spreads.

As of Thursday (March 12), 42 states and 1 jurisdiction were reporting COVID-19 cases, with the total number of cases at 1,215. Figures are updated daily at the Centers for Disease Control website.

Online classes only

Princeton Theological Seminary

Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey made the decision to move to online instruction and cancel all public events late last week. This lasts through May 1.

The seminary is located relatively close to New York City, which has seen a spike in cases, and at least one area adjacent to New York City, New Rochelle, is in lock down. Seminary travel is suspended through the end of March, when the situation will be re-evaluated. The Princeton Seminary library is closed to the public, and the Erdman Center is closed to guests after March 16.

“This represents a considerable disruption for our residential community,” said Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, in a statement. “Yet we are called to adapt in order to care for our neighbors and practice stewardship of public health, mindful that our decisions have consequences far beyond our campus.”

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has undertaken similar moves. The seminary is going to online classes only, canceling events and restricting travel. “The impact of COVID-19 has caused Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to take unprecedented steps to balance our educational mission with the duty to protect the health and well-being of the Seminary community, our neighbors, and vulnerable populations, said Rev. Dr. David Esterline, President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “The Seminary’s leaders are working quickly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully to plan our best course of action, taking into account the impact our decisions will have on this rapidly changing situation.”

Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., made the decision late Thursday to switch to online learning immediately. “Columbia Theological Seminary will extend midterm and assessment week for students through Sunday, March 22, and transition to remote learning for students in all degree programs and lifelong learning programs on Monday, March 23. Residential/in-class education is suspended through the end of the spring semester. Due to the extension of midterm and assessment week, we will not have spring break the week of April 6, as originally scheduled. Instead, online learning will continue at this time.”

All public events and any seminary events or gatherings are canceled through May 13, the seminary said.

International trips canceled

Union Presbyterian Seminary, with campuses in Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C., reports that there are no cases of COVID-19, but the seminary is asking those who travel to consider postponing any trips. International travel to level 2 or above countries is prohibited for work purposes. This also means a planned May trip to the Middle East is canceled. The seminary is making contingency plans for teaching courses online, allowing employees to work from home, and working through other scenarios. “We are thinking ahead,” said Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary “Our primary goal is, as I know you are aware, to ensure to the best of our ability everyone’s safety and good health.”

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary sent out a statement on March 10 to students, faculty and staff with protocols and guidelines for worship, travel and more. Classes have not been moved online. As of this writing, no cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Austin. “At this point we have no plans to cancel classes or move them online, however this may change,” announced Rev. Dr. Theodore J. Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary, on its website. “Faculty and the IT department are working to ensure a transition to that mode if necessity dictates. Students will receive instruction through the portal and by e-mail should that occur.”

At McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Rev. Dr. David Crawford, President of McCormick, is asking staff to cancel all travel plans through March 31, and to choose the most flexible option when scheduling future travel. He has recommended that faculty excuse any type of absence for illness, and to stay home if experiencing any illness. “Our IT department has prepared online tools for our instructors in the event things escalate rapidly, and we need to close the building and cancel any upcoming events,” Crawford said. Additionally, a planned event featuring a speaker was canceled this week, and more public events may be canceled.

The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary switched all students to online learning on March 16, according to the seminary website. Nearly all of the spring semester courses already had an online section, so the residential students were incorporated into those ongoing courses. UDTS has been offering theological education in a distance format for nearly 20 years. Louisville Seminary  is canceling classes and closing offices for Friday, March 13. The seminary’s library will be closed through March 15, and the counseling center will be closed the entire week of March 16, which is a research and study week, so no classes are in session. Classes will be held remotely for the rest of the semester.

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing for the Presbyterian Foundation. She can be reached at or at (502) 569-5101.