Harvard College Invites Seniors, Most Juniors to Campus for Spring Term

After a successful fall term, but with coronavirus protocols still in place, an attempt to accommodate more undergraduates in residence

Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, photographed in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Faculty Room
Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana and colleagues are preparing for a larger resident undergraduate population in the spring term. Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer 

After a fall term during which just 23 percent of undergraduates—primarily first-year students—were in residence, Harvard College will invite a maximum of 3,100 students (about half the total) to be in residence for the spring semester, beginning January 25. Those given priority include:

  • seniors, plus juniors who were enrolled and completed the fall 2020 semester;
  • students who were approved to study in residence during the fall given their need to be on campus to have a suitable learning environment;
  • students who were approved to remain in campus housing beyond November 22, when students otherwise had to leave Cambridge for the semester (with reading period and examinations conducted remotely);
  • students who live in time zones four or more hours away from Eastern Standard Time; and
  • students (including freshmen and sophomores) who require a campus learning environment for the spring.

Finally, juniors who were not enrolled during the fall term, or who did not complete the semester, may apply for housing and will be accommodated to the extent possible. Students must indicate their intentions for spring term by December 14.

The decisions, announced to the community in a message this afternoon from President Lawrence S. Bacow, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay, and Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana, were shaped by an earlier conclusion that to assure safety, maximum residential density must be held to one student per bedroom. Including Harvard Yard dorms, this yields a maximum of 3,100 individual student bedrooms—hence, the upper limit on residential enrollment.

Academic rationale. In deciding who could consider being in residence, the president and deans said they had been “guided entirely by our commitment to student academic progress.” They cited senior theses or other capstone projects, completion of which translates into giving seniors academic priority. Moreover, “What was revealed through consultation with faculty over the fall was just how vital the junior year is” in preparing for those capstone experiences—along with access to campus resources used in independent research. Beyond those groups, “We also learned from our students in distant time zones about the challenges they face in their access to synchronous learning and other real-time academic engagement, such as office hours, study groups, and peer advising.”

For sophomores, this means a full year away from campus, and for first-years, just one semester in residence.

What spring will be like. Accommodating up to 3,100 students in individual bedrooms necessarily means that students will not necessarily be returning to their original residential Houses. Indeed, with the Yard dorms in use, and de-densified bedrooms in the Houses, many students will be living in venues other than those they expected pre-pandemic.

All instruction will continue to be conducted remotely. Furthermore, students in residence will have to abide by the Community Compact governing distancing, masking, socializing, and so on, and comply with frequent virus testing, daily health attestation, and other protective measures.

In accommodating resident juniors and seniors, whose work requires access to academic resources, Harvard will move as quickly as possible, subject to public-health constraints, to phase in access to libraries and research laboratories: a more robust plan of operation than prevailed during the fall term, when such facilities were largely closed, and students only gradually gained time-limited, by-reservation access to study rooms and music-practice facilities outside their dorm rooms.

Public-health rationale. Today’s announcement says the spring 2021 plan accommodates the largest cohort of students in residence envisioned last July, when the College announced plans for the fall semester and academic year. This “significant step forward on the path toward a full residential return…reflects the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for the residential program this fall,” with a test positivity rate far below that in the surrounding community and “no evidence of transmission among members of our undergraduate residential population.” Overall, “[W]e are greatly encouraged by this outcome and grateful to the students in our campus community this fall who deserve enormous credit for it. With vigilance and resolve, they embraced Harvard’s public health protocols and put the community’s safety first. At the same time, they helped create a meaningful, supportive, and entirely unique residential experience under anything-but-ordinary circumstances. As we look ahead to spring, we value the partnership of these students who contributed in myriad ways to our efforts to strengthen and refine our pandemic adaptations.”

That said, “not all signs are encouraging”—especially the “record-breaking numbers of positive cases across the country.” Hence, careful planning is necessary, along with students’ commitment to conduct themselves safely and to plan on arriving with a sense of adaptability. Because Harvard’s spring term begins in late January—often the coldest time of year—compliance with virus protocols, during a largely indoor season, will be even more important than during the fall term, when the weather was generally more suited to seeing other people at a safe distance outdoors.

“[O]ur spring plan is just that, a plan,” the announcement notes. “If circumstances continue to deteriorate across the nation, we are prepared to respond quickly with appropriate contingency plans that would reduce expected campus density before the start of the spring term.” As they are assigned their staggered move-in times, “students coming to campus should pack lightly with the expectation that no storage will be available, and all items brought to campus will be taken home at the end of the residential program”—and each student “will need to complete a rapid-move out plan.”

Other considerations. With only a limited student cohort in residence, and public-health measures still in place, “This plan has implications for our athletics program.” The Ivy League has not announced plans regarding spring sports beyond February.

Financial-aid accommodations made during the fall will be extended during the spring. Students receiving financial aid who are not living on campus will have an allowance of $5,000 per semester—for COVID-19 remote room and board—incorporated in their aid calculation while studying at home, and the term-time work expectation has been relieved, and replaced with scholarship funding.  

The academic calendar is altered, too, as it was during the fall term. As previously announced, the academic schedule adheres to the normal beginning and ending dates for classes (January 25 and April 28), but does away with spring recess and the temptation to travel from and to campus, raising the risk of viral transmission. Instead, those days will be reallocated across the semester, in essence providing a biweekly day of relief from remote teaching via Zoom—the default option, as it was for fall-term classes. 

As noted, the plan announced today—reflecting surging coronavirus infections nationwide, but also Harvard’s effective regime of high-frequency virus testing, contact tracing, distanced dorm rooms, and remote instruction—is consistent with the upper bound of the plans released last July 6, with final plans for the new term to be announced in early December. Today’s announcement conforms to that schedule; it also falls nine days after those College students in residence in the fall had to leave, on November 22, and precedes this afternoon’s final scheduled faculty meeting of the semester. 

Elsewhere. The announcement somewhat more guardedly follows Princeton’s decision, disclosed on November 24, to welcome all students back to campus for the spring. Princeton had to make a late-summer pivot away from instruction in residence when New Jersey imposed tighter constraints to combat the pandemic. Now, Princeton has established its own high-frequency virus-testing capacity, and hopes to have a repopulated undergraduate program, albeit under strict controls. For those new to what that means (“A choice to return to campus is a choice to accept limitations and take on new responsibilities”), Princeton spelled out the kinds of restrictions with which some Harvard undergraduates became familiar this past semester: including:

  • primarily remote instruction;
  • campus-wide masking and social-distancing;
  • mandatory virus testing and compliance with contact-tracing, quarantine, and isolation programs;
  • a prohibition on parties, social gathering, and hosting visitors, plus travel restrictions;
  • quarantining upon arrival on campus;
  • de-densified housing, including, if necessary, off-campus; and
  • possible lock-downs depending on university and community health conditions.

(Although Princeton is apparently exploring ways to accommodate everyone by renting facilities off-campus if need be, that was never more than a speculative idea as Harvard College considered last spring how to proceed. The notion of housing students in apartments or hotels was floated in June, but never pursued as part of the University plan for the partial return to campus throughout this academic year.)

So here and elsewhere, campuses are tiptoeing toward enlarged operations. But normalcy is not yet at hand, and even the constrained plans for spring announced by the College today could be derailed if the public-health situation in the nation or Massachusetts deteriorates further in the winter weeks and months ahead.

Updated December 1, 2020, 7:50 p.m.: In the faculty meeting this afternoon, President Bacow and Provost Alan Garber expressed optimism about the coming availability and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines—but warned that students would likely be among the last cohorts to be vaccinated. Accordingly, Bacow said, with spring plans in place, administrators are turning their attention to the fall 2021 term, when the effects of the pandemic should be lessened—but not, within the academic community, wholly gone. In that vein, Dean Gay said, she would invite faculty colleagues to try to pilot in-person advising, teaching, and other academic experiences during the spring term, with an eye toward finding out what might work best in fall 2021. And in response to a professor’s question about when art-history students might regain access to Harvard Art Museums (in effect, their laboratory), Bacow said that much as he hoped that would be soon, the Commonwealth might, in fact, tighten restrictions on occupancy of museums as the virus spreads this fall and winter. Library collections are of course accessible: books can be requested and delivered. Museums’ collections present different problems—another example of the devilish complexities wrought by the ubiquitous virus, and the regulatory and public-health responses to that continuing threat.

Read the announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

You might also like

Using the Law for Good

2024 Radcliffe Medalist Sonia Sotomayor on civic engagement and optimism

Equality and Justice

A Radcliffe Day panel discusses pluralism and progress. 

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Most popular

Harvard Discloses Administrator and Investment Manager Compensation

The annual release on leaders’ most recent pay

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Harvard Corporation Rules Thirteen Students Cannot Graduate

Faculty of Arts and Sciences May 20 vote on protestors’ status does not confer “good standing.”

More to explore

Bernini’s Model Masterpieces at the Harvard Art Museums

Thirteen sculptures from Gian Lorenzo Bernini at Harvard Art Museums.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Sasha the Harvard Police Dog

Sasha, the police dog of Harvard University