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Bacow Says Plans for Spring Semester ‘Clouded in Enormous Uncertainty’

University President Lawrence S. Bacow discussed Harvard's spring outlook Wednesday.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow discussed Harvard's spring outlook Wednesday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

University President Lawrence S. Bacow reflected on the successes of the fall semester at Harvard and discussed uncertainty surrounding pending decisions regarding the spring in an interview Wednesday.

Bacow said the University has “learned a lot” since it made the choice in July to relegate all course instruction at the College to a virtual format and house no more than 40 percent of undergraduates on campus.

“We've learned that our high-cadence testing system is working well,” he said. “We've learned that we're capable of isolating students and tending to their needs when necessary, so that's worked well.”

“Our students are complying with social distancing and mask wearing and other sort of behavioral norms in ways that are very, very encouraging,” he added.

The College has not announced specific plans for housing students in the spring semester. Bacow declined to comment on when students can expect it to do so — though he said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future, given the success in the fall.

Still, Bacow emphasized that the upcoming months are “clouded in enormous uncertainty.”

One factor in future decision making is the virus itself. The “accelerating” prevalence of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts in recent weeks has presented a challenge for administrators, Bacow said.

“We've gone from 200 cases a week in Massachusetts to north of 1,000 cases a week,” he said. “If that should go to 2,000 cases a week, things are going to look very differently than if it goes back down. We're just going to have to wait and see.”

He also cited the weather. The second semester of the academic year overlaps with Cambridge's coldest months, and Bacow raised concerns about how winter weather will alter students’ behavior.

So far, the University has advised against meeting in enclosed spaces, barring students from entering houses and dorms where they are not residing. Instead, they’ve spent time outdoors.

“We've been blessed with a fall that's been very, very mild. People have been able to be outside, enjoy the weather,” Bacow said. “I think everybody's concerned about what happens as things get colder, and people have to stay indoors more.”

As of Friday, eight of the University’s schools have announced their plans for the spring semester.

Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Law School, Harvard School of Public Health, the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Divinity School, and the Radcliffe Institute will remain online-only. Harvard Kennedy School will offer a hybrid of in-person and remote classes. Harvard Medical School will invite all of its students back to campus.

“I think each school is in a different situation,” Bacow said. “Each one is trying to do the very best that they can. Each one is trying to provide the best possible educational experience.”

He cautioned that “every decision that we make is subject to change.”

“Another way of looking at it is all of our decisions are etched in sand,” Bacow said. “Our highest priority is to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

Bacow said that he believes Harvard's “efforts to date have gone well” — better than other colleges and universities that have racked up high case counts.

“We've been conservative in how we’ve responded to the virus and I think that those decisions that we made early on have stood us well,” he said. “Institutions that tried to be more aggressive have had to roll back their plans. We have not.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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