Harvard College Outlines Fall Options—with Instruction Remaining Remote

Dean Claudine Gay outlines “minimal,” “moderate,” and “full” residential scenarios, and the hurdles that have to be overcome.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay 
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Claudine Gay today outlined the three planning scenarios for how Harvard College might operate for the fall 2020 semester—from “minimal” to “moderate” to “full” residential density—and the health and safety hurdles that need to be resolved in arriving at a choice during the next couple of weeks. Importantly, she stressed that “All pathways assume that regardless of where our students are living, whether on campus or at home, learning will continue to be remote next year, with only rare exceptions.” She also pointed to changes in the academic calendar, and to public-health-driven alterations to campus living under any possible scenario.

The Three Residential Scenarios

An exhibit on the FAS “scenario planning” website details the three “possible pathways” under consideration for resuming operations on campus—but warns that some “gating issues will determine whether all three are viable choices.” Those hurdles concern the feasibility of large-scale coronavirus testing for members of the community in residence (and tracing the contacts of any community member who tests positive); and the procurement, provision, and distribution of masks and other essential personal protective equipment. Those initiatives are necessarily being implemented at the University level, so FAS’s decisions depend significantly on Harvard’s ability to satisfactorily deploy virus testing, tracing, and protective measures “essential to carrying out the new public-health practices these plans assume will be in place on campus.” With that caveat, the three possible options for College operations are as follows (emphases added):

Pathway 1: Minimal Density

Harvard College would continue to be largely remote, returning a minimal number of undergraduate students (~600) to live in residence on campus in fall 2020. Only students who lack the necessary conditions for learning in their home environment or require access to campus-based resources to maintain their academic continuity would have the opportunity to return. This pathway was essentially piloted in the second half of the spring semester, following campus de-densification. It reflects a situation in which the risk of a severe, uncontrolled disease outbreak remains high and Harvard’s capacity for regular testing and tracing is limited. The pathway presents the lowest risk of infection and community spread. As the public-health situation evolves and our understanding of how to safely operate in our changed circumstances advances, more students could potentially return for the spring semester, as described in Pathway 2.

Pathway Two: Moderate Density

Harvard College would return a moderate number of undergraduate students (~2,000-2,500 or roughly 40% of students) to live in residence on campus in fall 2020. Students described in Pathway 1, and one or two natural cohorts of students (i.e., first-year students, sophomores, juniors, or seniors) would have the opportunity to return. This pathway allows more students to be accommodated within the existing capacity of Harvard’s dorms and Houses, in line with the current density guidelines as outlined by public health officials, and with capacity retained for isolation needs. To be viable, this pathway requires that Harvard be able to execute moderate-volume, high-cadence testing capacity, delivering as many as 3,000 tests every two to three days that can be collected in sites across campus. This pathway presents a low risk of infection and community spread. Having a larger cohort of students on campus allows Harvard to pilot COVID-adapted, campus-based practices and programming. If successful and as the public health situation evolves, this pathway could potentially be scaled up, as described in Pathway 3, or if necessary, scaled down to Pathway 1.

Pathway Three: Full Density

All undergraduates students (~6,600) would have the opportunity to live in residence on campus in fall 2020, recognizing health concerns and travel and visa restrictions may prevent some students from being able to return. To adhere to the current density guidelines outlined by public health officials, this pathway requires supplemental housing beyond Harvard’s dorms and Houses, placing a large number of students (~30%) in local apartments and/or hotels. The distribution of students in on- and off-campus housing makes COVID-adapted community-building efforts challenging. To be viable, this pathway requires that Harvard be able to execute high-volume, high-cadence testing, delivering as many as 8,000 tests every two to three days that can be collected in sites across campus. This pathway presents the highest risk of infection and community spread. If unsuccessful and as the public health situation evolves, this pathway offers limited flexibility to scale down to Pathway 2 or 1, as described.

As noted above, accommodating more than a minimal number of students on campus this fall would require capacity for up to 3,000 virus tests every few days; and accommodating a full undergraduate cohort would require both the capacity to administer as many as 8,000 tests every two to three days and housing perhaps 30 percent of students off-campus (in commercially run apartments and/or hotels).

Thus, the scenarios envision phases of restoring residential operations, rather than a binary yes/no decision. They are contingent on significant public-health measures. And they suggest a residential life unlike the version students knew before last March 15, with:

  • frequent virus testing and tracing of any people with positive tests;
  • widespread masking, social distancing, and other preventive measures;
  • likely contactless (grab-and-go) dining, not sit-down dining in common, shared spaces; and
  • potentially, dispersion of a significant number of students to residences outside Harvard Yard and the Houses, to de-densify living accommodations.

The Dean’s Message

In her community message conveying these possibilities, Dean Gay noted that a decision would be made, as previously forecast, by July. “While the goal of returning to campus is simple,” she wrote, “determining how best to achieve it is much more complicated.” She noted that FAS has a problem unique among Harvard faculties, in that it embraces both graduate and undergraduate programs, and that they confront “very different situations”—the latter dominated by residential education in which 98 percent of enrolled students “ live together in dorms and Houses and participate in a broad range of extracurricular activities in addition to their courses of study.” (Not that graduate education during a pandemic is problem-free; as Gay noted, “Like Harvard’s professional schools, our graduate programs must find ways to adapt their program requirements, like coursework, teaching, and research, as well as mentoring and apprenticeship, to a pre-vaccine world. These adaptations must account for a host of complications and limitations, from visa and travel issues for international students to access to collections and laboratories without which academic progress for some is simply not possible.”)

In devising solutions that place the highest priority on health and safety, while sustaining the community’s academic principles and practices, take advantage of its broad and diverse human resources, and maintain access, Gay emphasized that the ultimate goal is “the eventual return of all undergraduates to campus.” Given the formidable practical questions (“at what pace and under what conditions that return occurs”), she emphasized that “deliver[ing] a truly excellent learning and growth experience for all students” is mandatory. But whatever course is chosen, given the uncertainties imposed by the pandemic itself, travel and visa constraints, and other challenges, “we must build in flexibility to enable adaptation to changing conditions.” Hence, scenarios have been provided that could proceed and lead to increasing the number of students in residence—or that could be scaled back and de-densify the campus if health conditions require.

As she summarized the options (emphasis in original):

Each of these pathways shares the goal of bringing our students safely back to campus while envisioning differently how and at what pace they can return. They include a path that starts the fall semester with a low-density campus, much like our current state of operations; a medium-density path that brings 30-40% of undergraduates back to campus; and one that begins with a quick return to a high-density campus that would welcome back all undergraduates for the fall semester.

Remote instruction. As noted, under any scenario, teaching and learning will proceed remotely—away from common lecture halls, avoiding the problems of queueing in and out of classrooms, and so on. “The overwhelming reason for this decision is our commitment to protecting the academic enterprise and preserving academic continuity for all of our students,” Gay wrote. “Continued remote instruction ensures that academic continuity for all students is maintained, even if travel restrictions, visa issues, or health considerations keep them away from campus. We also recognize the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public-health authorities.” (Although six of the professional schools have recently announced their plans to operate entirely remotely this fall, there is no indication that the College aims to use their classroom facilities for undergraduate instruction. Among them, those schools control relatively few dorm or other residential rooms, and it would be expensive and logistically complex to try to use their dining facilities, especially if undergraduates are widely dispersed among Yard and House dorm rooms, and possibly in off-campus accommodations.)

The academic calendar. Gay said that the academic calendar will be changed under any of the scenarios. While the College will retain a two-semester system, “breaks during the semester would be removed to minimize travel in and out of the campus community during the term.” (Many other colleges and universities, including Yale College, plan to open in August; operate continuously without holiday or fall breaks; and to recess residential operations at Thanksgiving, conducting final classes, reading period, and examinations remotely—to avoid the risk of students being exposed to the coronavirus over the holiday break and then returning to campus with infections.)

Public-health precautions. Given the wide incidence and severity of COVID-19 in eastern Massachusetts, Gay continued, “social-distancing, masking, and other public health practices will be a part of campus life for the foreseeable future.” Bluntly put, “Regardless of the path we choose, some members of our community will return to campus this fall, and the campus they return to will not be the one they left in the spring.” Early experience with “changes to facilities and community expectations” being implemented as laboratories, libraries, and museums welcome members of the community back to work will inform what the wider University needs to do to “reduce the risks of community transmission” while academic operations proceed.

Reaching a decision. As that experience accumulates and is assessed, Gay concluded:

The planning process has demonstrated for me not only the power but the necessity of the liberal arts. We have brought together the foremost experts in epidemiology, data privacy, infectious disease, history, economics, astrophysics, literature, evolutionary biology and more who are rolling up their sleeves with our administrative leaders to model scenarios, identify risks and mitigations, and, most importantly, keep our mission front and center as we plan for the future. Beyond this decision, Harvard has an unparalleled ability and a responsibility to bring broad expertise and a commitment to truth to bear on the challenges before us as a Harvard community and a society as a whole. There is important work to do, and I am eager to settle on the path forward.

That path should be determined, and communicated, within the next few weeks.





Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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