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Harvard moves classes online in wake of coronavirus outbreak

The move makes Harvard the second major Massachusetts college to dramatically alter campus life.

Harvard postdoctoral Kayla Jones carried moving boxes to pack up her things after Harvard announced it would move to online classes.
Harvard postdoctoral Kayla Jones carried moving boxes to pack up her things after Harvard announced it would move to online classes.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE - In an unprecedented move, Harvard University on Tuesday urged students not to return to campus after spring break ends March 23 and to take their classes online over fears about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Cambridge university became the second Massachusetts higher education institution to dramatically alter campus life in an effort to contain the spread of the illness.

Amherst College on Monday ordered students not to return to campus when the spring break ends and said remaining classes for this academic semester will be taught remotely. MIT will conduct classes with 150 students or more online, but so far has not moved toward a complete shutdown of in-person classes.

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University leaders at Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University also have urged their faculties to prepare in case their schools need to move to online education, but haven’t made an official decision yet.

In a statement posted on the university website dedicated to Covid-19 issues, Harvard said that the shift to virtual classrooms for both graduate and undergraduate students will start Tuesday with a goal of it being fully in place by March 23, when spring break ends. The university did not set a time for the resumption of in-person classes, but it anticipates these restrictions could be in place through the end of the semester. The university has not made any decisions about commencement ceremonies.

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In Harvard Square on Tuesday, a freshman student named Lucy, who didn’t want to give her last name, said she is from California, and because it’s “not great there” due to the coronavirus, she is instead packing up her belongings and moving with a classmate to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for the next few months — at least — until things settle down or she is allowed to come back to Harvard.

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“It happens." she said of how she was feeling about having to avoid both school and home. “Chilling."

She said she is packing up, and has to get a storage pod because she can’t fly to Canada with all of her belongings.

“Short notice,” she said. “We’re meant to be out by Sunday.”

A group of several students were tossing a football near one of the school’s main gates. As they threw the ball around, they were talking about what everyone is going to do now that classes are going to be taken online, and students are being asked to stay away from the campus.

“For people who are further away it’s a bigger deal to pack up and such,” said Alex Kontoyiannis, 19, a freshman from Houston.

Harvard student Will Rowley carried moving boxes to pack up his things.
Harvard student Will Rowley carried moving boxes to pack up his things. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kontoyiannis was trying to find the right words to describe his emotions in the wake of the stunning announcement.

“I don’t know if it’s stress? It’s just like, shock,” he said. “Not only did they cancel class [on campus] but they are making us move out. That’s the bigger deal. Because if they canceled indefinitely you could come back and just resume...but if they are making us move out...it’s a much bigger transition.”

Jack Markert, a 19-year-old freshman from Alabama, was scurrying through campus with several folded moving boxes that he picked up from the post office nearby. He said upon hearing the news he decided to start getting plans in gear for after spring break.

Markert considered himself “lucky” since he has friends and a sister in Boston who are willing to store some items for him.

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“I have a lot of friends who are international students and who are scrambling right now to see, sort of, how they’re going to get back to their own countries, and how they are going to be able to get all their stuff packed up,” he said. “It’s very chaotic, but we’re making it through.”

In messages to Harvard students, university leaders noted that they were taking unusual and extreme measures. The last time the university was forced to pivot midway through the year was in the 1940s, in the midst of World War II, when the campus was given over to military training.

“The decision was not made lightly,” Harvard President Larry Bacow said in his message to the community. “The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity to each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings.”

The university expects that some students will have to remain on campus through the end of the school year, either because they can’t return to their home countries or don’t have a place or resources to access online classes. Students can ask permission to remain on campus and university officials said they are working on the logistics to reduce the risks of coronavirus transmission for those who stay.

The university expects faculty and staff to continue working. Harvard officials acknowledged that the next few days and weeks are likely to be chaotic, as students move out and professors transition online.

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“This is a lot to take on,” said Claudine Gay, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s largest school, in a message to those associated with the program. “It can be overwhelming, frustrating, and anxiety-producing to have to shift gears so dramatically in the middle of the semester, and finding a way to be creative in a situation of considerable pressure is difficult to say the least.”

Harvard officials asked students, faculty, and staff for patience.

“This is hard stuff, and no one is in this alone,” Gay said in her message.

In his letter, Bacow wrote that the move is being undertaken based on recommended best practices from public health professionals.

“The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly. The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings,” Bacow wrote. “The campus will remain open and operations will continue with appropriate measures to protect the health of the community.”

He added: “We strongly discourage any non-essential meetings or events of 25 people or more on campus. Please note this is a change from prior guidance.”

In his letter, Bacow wrote directly to students, faculty, and the university’s large professional and support staff.

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  • “To our students, I know it will be difficult to leave your friends and your classrooms. We are doing this not just to protect you but also to protect other members of our community who may be more vulnerable to this disease than you are.”
  • “To our faculty, I recognize that we are asking you midway through the semester to completely rethink how you teach. We do this because we know that you want to avoid putting your students at risk.”
  • “To our staff, I understand that we are expecting you to go above and beyond in your efforts to support our important mission of teaching and scholarship. We do this because we know we can rely on your creativity, flexibility, and judgment through these challenging times."

(John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.)



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.