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Six Harvard graduate schools will hold only online classes this fall

Harvard officials on Wednesday said the decision of six of its graduate schools to go fully online was difficult.
Harvard officials on Wednesday said the decision of six of its graduate schools to go fully online was difficult.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe/File 2020

Six of Harvard University’s graduate schools announced on Wednesday that they would be fully online for the upcoming fall semester or through the entire academic year because of fears that social-distancing requirements would be too difficult to meet and that a resurgence of the coronavirus spread on campus could be too disruptive for learning.

“We have all hoped these past few months that the upcoming academic year could begin, at least in part, on campus,” John Manning, dean of the Harvard Law School, wrote in a message to students. “However, in light of the daily news about the continuing health risks of the pandemic, advice from public health experts, and the very real concern that testing will not yet be available on the scale or frequency needed to adequately monitor COVID-19-related illness in the Harvard community, we have found it necessary to conclude that Fall Term 2020 will be online.”

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Manning’s message was sent late Wednesday afternoon and followed a series of messages from other graduate schools that they, too, were going online starting in the fall. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, School of Divinity, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Kennedy School also said they will be online for the fall semester. The university’s Graduate School of Education plans to be online for the entire academic year. Together they enroll nearly 6,000 students. No decision is expected on the undergraduate college until later in June.

Harvard’s decision to keep most graduate students online is likely to be mirrored across the country, especially if institutions are prioritizing getting undergraduates back on campus in some fashion, said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of education leadership at Seton Hall University.

“Classroom space is going to be at a premium for the next academic year and colleges will struggle to find enough rooms to accommodate students with social distancing,” Kelchen said. “I think that undergraduate students will get priority because they are expecting as close to a traditional on-campus experience as possible and colleges don’t want to risk losing these students to other colleges that are promising more in-person classes.”

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Kelchen said if universities bring undergraduates back, they are likely going to need to use classrooms at night and in the evening and ensure meeting social-distancing guidelines.

While master’s degree programs are moneymakers for colleges, these older students are also more likely to have taken some classes online and be less turned off by the experience, Kelchen said.

And the weak job market will likely keep graduate students enrolled in their programs, instead of trying to find employment, he said.

Still, Harvard officials on Wednesday said the decision to go fully online was difficult.

Bringing students back to campus would have resulted in “a severely altered experience," said Bridget Long, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a message to the community.

Travel restrictions would likely have prevented students, particularly those coming from abroad, to participate in classes. Intermittent periods of quarantine when the virus flared would likely result in multiple interruptions throughout the academic year, Long said.

Epidemiologists from Harvard’s public health school have been heavily involved in COVID-19 research and discussions nationwide, and university officials expect plans to evolve as they learn more about the pandemic, said Michelle A. Williams, dean of the Chan school.

But for now, Williams said it was important to give students some certainty about the fall semester.

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“Our students — US and international — must be able to continue their education without fear for their health, and many have expressed wanting to avoid unsafe travel and the need to care for family members,” Williams said. “Our actions cannot worsen the public health crisis.”

The Kennedy School will keep tuition the same, but students may qualify for financial aid and other cost-of-attendance reductions that would lower their eventual bill, university officials said.

The Law School will set aside $1 million to help students who may have technology problems that could be a barrier to online learning.

The Kennedy School and Law School also said they plan to be more flexible for students who want to defer for a year or take a leave of absence.

“We thought it was important that incoming students not feel trapped in an arrangement they had not anticipated,” Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School said, although he told faculty to encourage new students to continue with their education.

For those students who remain enrolled, Harvard officials have promised a more robust online learning experience.

Faculty and staff are working to craft online courses and cocurricular activities, Long said.

Harvard’s education school is also offering students an option to enroll part time for the master’s program, Long said.

Universities nationwide must make decisions soon about whether to invest fully online for the fall and teach students remotely or spend money on finding more space, including in hotels and offices, to house and teach students if they return to campus, Kelchen said.

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“Both of those will be expensive and they will have to make a choice,” he said.


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