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Harvard will reopen in the fall, but whether it’s remote or on campus is uncertain

An empty Harvard Yard at Harvard University. The school says it plans to reopen in the fall, but whether it's remote or on campus still isn't clear.
An empty Harvard Yard at Harvard University. The school says it plans to reopen in the fall, but whether it's remote or on campus still isn't clear.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Harvard University officials said Monday that the school is preparing for many, if not all, of its classes to be delivered remotely when the fall semester starts in early September, an acknowledgment that it may be unsafe for students to immediately return to campus.

Harvard said on Monday that it briefly considered delaying the start of the academic year until spring 2021, but ultimately rejected that idea.

University classes will begin on schedule Sept. 2, but whether students are on campus or learning virtually remains uncertain, Harvard provost Alan M. Garber wrote in a message sent to the community Monday afternoon.

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“Our goal is to bring our students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows and staff to campus as quickly as possible, but because most projections suggest that COVID-19 will remain a serious threat during the coming months, we cannot be certain that it will be safe to resume all usual activities on campus by then,” Garber said. “Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely.”

Harvard’s announcement left many questions unanswered, including whether online classes would cost less for students than in-person instruction.

Universities are under increasing pressure from rising freshmen, returning undergraduates, and graduate students and their families to offer some understanding of what the fall semester could look like amid the pandemic. A group of incoming freshmen at Harvard sent an open letter to university president Lawrence Bacow last week asking him to postpone the fall semester if it is going to be online because low-income, first-generation students would be at a disadvantage learning remotely without in-person interactions.

Other college and university presidents are also weighing if and how they can reopen their campuses in the fall.

“Every university I know of is engaged in a huge planning effort,” said Larry Ladd, a higher education consultant in Falmouth. “It’s more intense and more complicated, in part because you don’t know how many students are going to show up.”

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Boston University said it plans to have a decision by July and is considering several options, from a phased-in start to delaying in-person classes until January.

Merrimack College, in North Andover, has told students that it plans to open as a residential campus in the fall, although it is considering alternatives, including delaying the student return by a month or more. Merrimack officials said remote learning would only be an option if public health and state officials mandated it.

Yale University will announce its decision about the fall semester by July. Stanford University officials are considering several recommendations that will be presented to their president in late May, including delaying the start date until the winter quarter.

On Monday, the University of Pennsylvania told parents and students that it was "planning for a likely combination of in-class and virtual teaching (particularly for large lectures) depending upon the circumstances.”

In an opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday, Brown University president Christina Paxson wrote that reopening colleges and universities in the fall should be a “national priority” and called for putting appropriate testing, tracing, and containment practices in place now. Many institutions face financial catastrophe if they don’t start the next academic year this fall, Paxson wrote.

“The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple — tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester,” Paxson wrote. “Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.”

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Unlike the decision to close campuses and shift to remote learning, which occurred swiftly across the country in the space of about a week in March, higher education experts expect that the approach to the fall semester will vary.

Urban and rural schools may come to different decisions, experts said, and they will be guided by the rules of individual states. Individual colleges and universities will also have to consider whether they have the financial ability to provide only online education or postpone start dates.

Many institutions are considering hybrid models if it remains unsafe to have hundreds or thousands of students back on campus, living in dormitories, sharing bathrooms and dining halls, sitting in lecture halls, and partying on and off-campus on the weekends. Some colleges are looking at breaking up large lecture classes or shifting them online.

Colleges may also bring back segments of the college to campus for a few weeks at a time for in-person learning and activities and then send them back home to continue with remote instruction, Ladd said.

That could mean dorms that traditionally house 200 students could be repurposed for social distancing and serve 50 students at a time, he said.

“My prediction would be the best that could happen is a hybrid sort of instruction with modified residency,” Ladd said.

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In its announcement Monday, Harvard said it will bring students back on campus in September if it has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, reliable and convenient viral testing, robust contact tracing procedures, and facilities for quarantine and isolation.

But Garber, the provost, also cautioned that the fall semester plans for the undergraduate college may differ from those at the graduate and professional schools. Harvard’s graduate schools, such as the Kennedy School, rely heavily on international student enrollment, and it is unclear whether it will be safe for those students to travel to the United States from their home countries or if they will be able to get the appropriate visas.

Harvard graduate schools may be forced to offer more online educational opportunities if students can’t get to Cambridge.

“Because our schools have different approaches to learning and research, aspects of the fall semester will likely vary among them,” Garber said

Garber added that Harvard is planning for a “notably different” remote learning experience from what the university rushed to provide this spring. College students now scattered across the country and globe have grumbled that the online, video-conferenced classroom experience has fallen short of in-person classes.

“With more time to prepare, we are confident we can create a better, more engaging experience for the fall, should many of our activities need to be conducted remotely," Garber said. “Rather than seeking to approximate the on-campus experience online, we can focus our efforts on developing the best possible remote educational experience.”

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Garber said if students cannot return to campus in the fall as usual, the university will also consider ways to offer extracurricular activities and research experiences remotely.

Garber did not say when Harvard will make a decision about how the fall semester will shake out.

Also left unanswered is whether the university will charge students the same tuition for remote learning and what staffing levels will be in the fall. Harvard is paying its dining workers, custodians, and security officers through the end of May.

“The consequences of any major decision for a large and complex university like Harvard are themselves complex and highly uncertain,” Garber wrote.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.