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Harvard enacts worker protections, makes classes pass/fail

Widener Library in Harvard Yard, photographed in 2018.
Widener Library in Harvard Yard, photographed in 2018.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Harvard University will continue paying staff and contract workers through May 28, officials said Friday, and will temporarily switch to pass/fail grading, as more Massachusetts colleges continue to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

Boston University also said Friday that it would make pass/fail optional for most students. Provost Jean Morrison said in an e-mail to faculty and staff that BU students will receive letter grades this semester, but most will have the option of changing those grades to “credit” or “no credit” for some, all, or none of their classes.

The decisions by Harvard and BU follow similar action taken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College, Northeastern University, UMass Boston, and Smith College to adjust their grading systems after switching to remote learning this semester.

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Harvard officials announced the switch to pass/fail grades — which the university refers to as “emergency satisfactory” and “emergency unsatisfactory” — In e-mails to faculty and students.

“This new terminology is purposefully chosen to indicate the unique nature of this semester in the archival record and to distinguish this semester’s grades from Harvard College’s standard grading system,” said Claudine Gay, Harvard’s dean of the faculty, in a message to professors.

One Harvard senior said she was concerned about the impact an alternative grading system could have on her grade point average.

But speaking from her home in Michigan, where her Internet connection is spotty, Terzah Hill added that “it is really, really comforting and assuring,” to know that technical issues won’t affect her grades.

Also on Friday, Harvard announced economic help for workers affected by the shift to online learning and operations this semester.

Harvard employees and contract workers who are able to work but can’t do their jobs from home, or whose duties were eliminated by the university’s recent shift to off-campus learning, will receive regular pay and benefits through May 28, Harvard executive vice president Katie Lapp said in an e-mail to university leaders.

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This includes dining hall and custodial workers, as well as part-timers working fewer than 17 ½ hours per week, Lapp said. She also said a financial stabilization package would keep six independent, nonprofit child care centers on campus operating through June, offering stability to their 180 employees.

Much of Harvard’s staff is working from home and won’t be directly affected by the protections, according to Carrie Barbash, an organizer for the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents about 5,000 university employees.

But the policy will make a big difference for those who need it, Barbash said, calling it “a step in the right direction” and praising the university for getting it enacted in a short span.

“I think this is a time for them to be as generous as possible, and I think they’re doing that,” she said in a phone interview, adding later, “I just feel very relieved.”

Barbash said the policy addresses most employees’ concerns, though it may be necessary to revisit it if the pandemic is not controlled before the end of May.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns, and the way the federal government seems to be handling this virus, it could obviously go on for months,” she said.

Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, said in a statement that Harvard was “doing the right thing” for the roughly 1,000 cleaners and security officers that the union represents, who “have been at the frontlines of fighting this virus, keeping the campus clean and safe for the entire Harvard community.”

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Carlos Aramayo, president of UNITE HERE Local 26, which represents about 800 Harvard employees and subcontractors in dining halls, said Harvard made “the right decision” and called on other employers to follow suit.

“Nothing can reopen until we tackle this public health crisis head-on,” Aramayo said in a statement.

Globe Correspondent Stephanie Purifoy contributed to this story. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com



Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.