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Harvard moves to mostly remote learning in first three weeks of January

A pedestrian walks through Harvard Yard on the Harvard University campus. The school's temporary shift to online learning follows a rise in COVID-19 numbers throughout Massachusetts.Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg

Harvard University will move to mostly remote learning for the first three weeks of January following a rise in local COVID-19 cases and the new, spreading Omicron variant, the university’s administration said Saturday.

The announcement comes two days after the Harvard administration told students and staff that a COVID-19 booster would be required for the spring semester, and that Omicron was likely present on campus.

“Please know that we do not take this step lightly,” Lawrence Bacow, Harvard’s president, and other university leaders said in a statement Saturday. “It is reinforced by the guidance of public health experts who have advised the University throughout the pandemic. As always, we make this decision with the health and safety of our community as our top priority.”

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Only students who have already been approved to stay on campus during this period and those with “compelling individual circumstances” will be allowed to live in university housing during the three weeks, according to the statement.

Some of Harvard’s winter session classes will be in person, including lab courses and clinicals, but most students will work remotely.

A Harvard spokesman said Saturday that the university had no further comment on what will happen after the three weeks of remote learning.

The shift to online learning follows a rise in COVID-19 numbers throughout Massachusetts, with the state reporting 6,345 new confirmed cases and 45 new confirmed deaths on Friday.

On Wednesday, health officials identified the first three cases of the Omicron variant in Boston — all of which were detected in adults who were not fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms.

“We are planning a return to more robust on-campus activities later in January, public health conditions permitting,” the statement said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on these plans as soon as we are able.”

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Ben Ewen-Campen, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, said he supports the decision to go remote for three weeks.

The university’s public health measures throughout the pandemic have been appropriate, Ewen-Campen said, but he does hope the administration is able to avoid going remote for a longer period.

“I certainly hope the pandemic doesn’t get to a point that the whole university needs to be fully remote again,” he said.

Freshman Ethan Jasny was planning to return to campus a week before the spring semester starts for a winter session class. Now he isn’t sure when he’ll come back.

Jasny said he is disappointed by the change in plans and wishes the university shared more information about when he can return. But he understands why the decision was made, he said.

“They want to ensure that the next six weeks can be a full COVID circuit breaker before spring classes begin,” Jasny said. “If going online [early] in January makes it more likely we’ll have in-person classes when classes start [later] in January, then I’m all for it.”

He expects there will be a rise in cases when students finally do return to campus after being away over winter break, but he hopes the university will not have to go fully remote.

“If the college needs to introduce additional precautions like temporarily limiting in-person dining, that’s fine, but moving all classes online for an extended period of time should only be a last resort,” Jasny said.

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Herman Saksono, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Center for Research on Computation and Society, has been working at his lab in person since June.

“It is definitely a better way to do research, because, you know, learning is social,” Saksono said. “Zoom just cannot fully replace in-person interactions. But I would rather see our community safe and healthy.”

If the number of new cases continues to rise, he said he would like Harvard to distribute K95 masks instead of the surgical masks that are currently provided and perhaps increase how often people on campus are tested for the virus.

“I would like to see Harvard follow public health experts’ recommendations, even if it means staying with remote learning,” Saksono said.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.