Harvard Staff to Return August 2

The University announces a date for faculty and staff members to return, in anticipation of fall residential operations.

Harvard shield superimposed on image of Widener Library, a symbol of returning to operations
Image by Unsplash. 

The University announced today that if conditions permit, the majority of remote workers will be authorized to return to campus on Monday, August 2—almost 17 months after the community dispersed in mid March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic first spread.

In a carefully worded message to faculty and staff members, President Lawrence S. Bacow,  Provost Alan M. Garber, and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp wrote:

We are all hopeful that anticipated broader availability of vaccine in the coming months will result in improved public-health conditions that allow us to gradually increase activities on campus into the summer and fall. Guided by public-health expertise, we aim to welcome as many students as possible this fall, and the Schools will be sharing updates with their respective communities.

They emphasized that Harvard’s highest priority remains the health and safety of every community member, and accordingly noted that “we will continue to engage in contingency planning” in order to adapt if public-health conditions deviate from expectation.

The anticipated return-to-work date is conditioned in several ways. Amplifying on the nod to schools’ differing needs and schedules, they noted that “there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to this transition period,” so schools and departments will be “adopting a variety of flexible approaches and varying return-to-campus dates”—including some earlier than August 2, where summer and fall academic calendars require.

The schools are starting to signal their intentions—or at least, hopes. In a March 18 message to the Kennedy School community and applicants admitted for the 2021-2022 academic year, for example, Dean Douglas Elmendorf wrote about “our planning for the summer and fall, which involves returning to campus in late summer if all goes well.” The admitted applicants learned that “we are planning for in-person classes but also preparing backup plans” in case Harvard and Massachusetts health protocols (vaccination, masking, testing, social distancing, ventilation, and so on) limit the density permitted on campus. Although mid-summer career programs, from July through early August, will remain online, the school hopes to run other academic programs in person thereafter—and for orientation for the new academic year to take place on campus, to be followed by in-person instruction. In anticipation of resuming campus life, Elmendorf wrote, “we expect that many faculty, staff, and fellows will return to campus in early August, although some may be asked to wait until later in August or September to create a smoother re-entry process.” The physical campus would open on a phased basis. (Executive education, a major business for the Kennedy School, would remain online through the fall semester to reduce demands for classroom and common spaces.) Backup plans include hybrid teaching, flexible and remote working, and other options.

Updated March 22, 2021, 1:40 p.m.: Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay announced plans for “a full return to campus in Fall 2021 and our planning is focused entirely on how to restart all campus-based activities safely.” That includes an expectation that “all College students will return to campus-based learning this fall,” with regular, full-density accommodations on campus—plus Harvard-affiliated housing on or near campus to accommodate the larger-than-normal enrollment as students who took leaves or deferred admission return. Read Gay’s statement here. 


The University’s tentative return date is not a COVID-19 “all-clear” signal. Bacow, Garber, and Lapp wrote that Harvard is working to put in place “the necessary support services and systems”—including continuing health and safety protocols, COVID-19 testing, and so on. This suggests that those who have been working completely remotely may well have to become acquainted with the Crimson Clear system for daily wellness attestation and campus virus-testing procedures, while maintaining the now-accustomed masking and social-distancing precautions.

And yes, it sounds as though Harvard expects the patterns of work to be changed from those prevailing BC (before coronavirus). Today's message alluded to “conversations regarding updates to our workforce and human-resources policies to ensure we are in step with the realities and opportunities of the post-pandemic work environment”—a possible nod toward more flexible schedules, hybrid (office and home) plans, or other innovations. Bacow mentioned such possibilities during a recent interview—and they might be especially important as workers returning to campus, and to other Greater Boston employers, reckon with new commuting patterns and the possibility of gridlocked traffic if too many people resort to private vehicles. (In a subsequent Harvard Gazette interview, he said, “I think that when the day comes that this pandemic is in the rearview mirror, we will be looking at how we can provide more flexibility in how people work.”)

Taking note of the extraordinary circumstances of the past year and the upheavals they caused, Bacow, Garber, and Lapp concluded with a note of appreciation for the adjustments members of the community had made:

It has now been over a year since the majority of us shifted to remote work, and we once again thank each of you—those remote and those currently reporting to campus—for your resilience, patience, and commitment. You adapted to a rapidly changing environment and made it possible for the University to deliver on its mission to offer the highest quality learning and research opportunities for our students. We look forward to the days ahead as we prepare for our safe return to campus.

Read the full text of their message here.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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