Will Harvard’s Campus Reopen for Fall?

Provost Alan Garber outlines the possibilities and options—and the College prepares for continued remote teaching, if necessary

Provost Alan M. Garber
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

As universities nationwide consider the options for reopening campuses this fall in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Alan M. Garber, the provost—who is a physician and medical scholar—disseminated a message this afternoon, outlining the considerations that will shape Harvard’s decisions, and those of its schools. It is more a road map than a list of decisions, but it clearly indicates that remote instruction, with students not in residence, has to be considered a possibility.

“Harvard will be open for fall 2020,” he wrote: the academic year will not be deferred (The Harvard Crimson reported on some incoming students’ preference for deferring the start of school rather than resorting to remote teaching). But even as the “goal is to bring our students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows and staff to campus as quickly as possible,” the likelihood that COVID-19 will remain a serious threat means that “we cannot be certain that it will be safe to resume all usual activities on campus by then. Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely.”

He noted that the College and graduate and professional schools will operate with “a common understanding of our health and safety needs,” but proceed with “different approaches to learning and research,” suggesting that those approaches may well vary come September. On the health and safety issues, he continued:

We will need to consider whether the epidemiological data and public health models indicate that most disease activity is behind us and that further waves of outbreak are unlikely. If our community has not developed sufficient levels of immunity through recovery from the disease or vaccination, and if safe and effective antiviral therapy is not available, we will likely need adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, reliable and convenient viral testing, robust contact tracing procedures, and facilities for quarantine and isolation. We must do our part to assure the health and safety of everyone within and beyond the Harvard community, particularly those at elevated risk. In the coming months we will learn more about whether these conditions can be met in time for the fall semester.

If teaching must be conducted remotely, he wrote, “we anticipate that the experience will be notably different from the current spring semester,” when the transition to remote teaching and learning took place in less than two weeks. Looking forward, Garber observed, “with more time to prepare, we are confident we can create a better, more engaging experience for the fall should many of our activities need to be conducted remotely”—and one that could better take account of students' diverse home learning environments. (These are consequential, immediate issues: students on many campuses have begun to make the case that remote learning is not equivalent to the residential experience, and that tuition charges should be adjusted downward, perhaps considerably, if they cannot pursue their education in residence.)

Should education be conducted away from campus for some extended period, Garber noted, the University is mindful of the value of office hours, study groups, conversation over meals, and serendipitous campus interactions. Accordingly, if for reasons of health and safety a “fully on-campus experience” is precluded come the fall term, “our efforts will not end with a shift to remote teaching and learning. We will aim to reimagine other critical elements of the campus experience, re-envisioning Harvard traditions, extracurricular activities, research experiences, and professional development for our students.”

“Even if we must begin the semester remotely,” the provost concluded, “we hope to return students to campus as soon as it is possible to do so while providing for their safety and that of the entire campus community.” He signaled that each school would communicate with students, faculty, staff, and postdoctoral fellows “in the days and weeks ahead” with information specific to them, and expressed appreciation for “your flexibility, patience, commitment, and creativity.”

Separately, as an indication of the kind of thinking going on elsewhere in academia, in a New York Times op-ed essay published today, Brown University president Christina Paxson outlined a three-stage process for returning students to campus this fall, involving universal, rapid coronavirus testing upon students’ arrival at campus and thereafter during the academic year; digital contact tracing to monitor the spread of any infection; and separation of students who fall ill or are exposed to the virus—perhaps to nearby hotel rooms, where they can be isolated and quarantined.

Updated April 27, 3:30 p.m.: Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana forwarded to students Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay’s message to faculty members, disseminated shortly after Garber’s note. She said that plans to return faculty members and graduate students to campus for research purposes are under way. But, she noted, “Our most daunting challenge will be how and when to stage the return of undergraduates to their residential Houses”—given the problems of maintaining safe social distancing, getting international students to Cambridge, and so on.

She continued,

The range of alternatives we will need to consider, because the pandemic will not be behind us, includes some degree of remote instruction. If we decide to pursue a remote experience in the fall, we will approach it differently than was possible in the quick transition to remote instruction that occurred this spring, using the next four months to reimagine the Harvard experience for students, both in and beyond the curriculum, and to provide an entirely different level of support to faculty and teaching fellows. In many ways, this option would constitute the heaviest lift for our community and for it to be viable, focused and deliberate work must begin immediately.

That planning will be lead by sciences dean Chris Stubbs and Mike Burke, the registrar. Reflecting the continuing uncertainties, she noted of members of the class of 2024, “While this is not the beginning they imagined…[w]e hope they choose to join us.” A decision on what sort of learning experience they and upperclassmen and -women may anticipate is expected “no later than July.”

Separately, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s running list of campus plans notes the following decision points and times:

  • Cornell, no decision until June
  • George Washington University, will communicate May 15
  • Macalester College, prefers regular residential semester but may altera academic calendar to accommodate
  • Stanford, expects to decide in May, might delay fall quarter until winter (Stanford has such flexibility under its quarter, rather than semester, schedule)
  • University of Michigan, hopes to have in-person instruction
  • University of Virginia, will update on plans by mid June
  • Williams College, will announce by July 1
  • Yale, expects to decide by early July
Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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