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Only 40 percent of Harvard undergrads will return to campus this fall

Only about 40 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate population will be allowed back on campus in the fall.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

All of Harvard University’s undergraduate courses will be taught online this fall and fewer than half the students will be allowed on campus, as the nation’s oldest college undergoes a major transformation that represents among the most restrictive higher education re-opening plans in the coronavirus era.

The university announced on Monday it will allow only first-year students and undergraduates specifically invited for academic reasons — about 40 percent of its undergraduate population — to come to campus in September. Students will be housed in single-room dormitories and they will be tested for the virus every three days. Most of the university’s non-residential buildings will be off-limits.


“We have sought a path to bringing all students back as soon as conditions allow, while continuing their academic progress in the meantime and remaining a vibrant research community across our broad range of disciplines,” Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, along with two deans, wrote in a message to the campus community. “But we also recognize that, fundamentally, there is an intrinsic incompatibility between our highly interactive, residential Harvard College experience and the social distancing needed to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.”

Harvard’s plans diverge from most other colleges and universities in the Boston area, which intend to bring most students to campus this upcoming school year with masks, frequent testing, smaller classrooms, and a mix of online and in-person classes.

Bacow and the deans said they have been concerned about the surge in transmission of the virus in many corners of the country in recent weeks, prompting the college’s more cautious approach.

“The recent upturn in COVID-19 cases in certain states illustrates the difficulty of making predictions, even well-informed ones, about the evolution of this virus,” Bacow said in the message. “Given this uncertainty, we determined that our fall plan must enable us to bring back as many students as possible while providing sufficient margin to accommodate an escalation in the prevalence of COVID-19 in our area.”


Students can apply for waivers to be on campus if they have challenges to remote learning, including a lack of appropriate technology, limited quiet space, food and shelter insecurities, and a need to access laboratories for their senior thesis, the university said. Students who can’t be on campus during the academic year will be able to take two courses at Harvard’s summer school in 2021, without paying tuition.

Harvard’s announcement was met by relief from first-year students and disappointment from older undergraduates.

“It would have been really disappointing to have lost senior year [of high school] and freshman year [of college],” said Chukwudi Ilozue, 17, an incoming Harvard freshman from outside of Buffalo, N.Y. “It’s going to be different. We get to be on campus, but we don’t get the full experience.”

Emma Berens, 19, a rising sophomore from West Roxbury, said she understands why Harvard prioritized the first-year experience this fall, since that’s when students first meet each other and make connections and friends.

But she wishes she could also return to campus.

“I miss campus dearly,” Berens said. The coronavirus has upended much of her college experience. Some of her friends are now considering taking a leave of absence for a semester or year, meaning that they will no longer graduate together. Learning online from home this past spring also made her feel like she had regressed to high school.


Berens and a group of six friends are looking at renting a house on Cape Cod this fall, so that they can be together while taking their courses online.

“That would provide some semblance of normalcy,” she said.

Despite moving all its courses online, Harvard said it does not plan to reduce its $49,650 tuition for the academic year. Many students receive financial aid, which lowers the actual price of attendance. Students who are on financial aid but studying remotely will also receive a $5,000 per semester allowance, the university said.

That plan, however, could force some first-generation, low-income students to sacrifice their academic and emotional life for the money, said Silvana Gomez, 20, a rising senior from New Jersey.

They may be better off applying for a waiver to study on campus, but it will hard to reject the money, said Gomez, who slept on an air mattress at her family’s home this spring after Harvard forced students to leave campus due to the virus. She did most of her schoolwork from there because she didn’t have a desk available.

“Five thousand dollars is a lot of money. It covers your parents’ rent for a few months ... or food insecurity,” Gomez said. “Students are going to stay home, when it’s not the best option.”

Like Harvard, a handful of other private colleges and universities have outlined plans to significantly reduce their on-campus student population. On Monday, Princeton University announced it would bring incoming first-year students and rising juniors back in August and then in the spring, sophomores and seniors would be on campus. MIT said in June that it expected fewer than 60 percent of undergraduates will be allowed to return to campus this fall. MIT will announce more detailed plans on Tuesday.


Most of Harvard’s graduate schools had previously announced they will be online in the fall.

Whether other universities will change their plans and follow Harvard’s lead, given the course of the virus, is uncertain.

Boston University officials Monday said they are moving ahead with their fall plans that include in-person and remote classes and students living in the dormitories with restrictions, including being grouped into households to share facilities.

Northeastern University, which is also taking a hybrid approach, said frequent coronavirus testing, masks, and social-distancing restrictions will keep students safe this fall. Northeastern hopes that students will have at least one face-to-face class in each of their courses every week, said David Madigan, the university’s provost and co-chairman of its reopening team.

“We believe our plan is the best plan for us and our students,” Madigan said. “With regular testing, we are expecting that we will have a safe environment. We’re in Boston, COVID is in Boston, we aren’t providing a sealed bubble. It’s not zero risk.”

If the public health risks become more dire in the fall, Northeastern will consider options like Harvard’s and go entirely online for teaching, he said.

Planning for the fall semester has been complicated and risky for universities. Students and families want an on-campus learning experience, but some faculty and staff who are older are more reluctant to return to campus. Many higher education institutions are also facing ballooning costs from new testing requirements and online technology needs and reduced revenue from international students who may not be able to come to the United States and study because of travel restrictions and from US students who opt to remain home.


Harvard officials on Monday said they are uncertain about the spring 2021 semester. If the risks of the virus have been lowered and the college has contained campus-based infections, more classes of students would be brought to campus. If the same residential density has to be maintained in the spring, only seniors and those with waivers will be brought back, Harvard said.

If conditions worsen, Harvard might allow only students who have no other housing options on campus, the university said.

A decision by Harvard on the spring semester is expected in early December.

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