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When online classes resume this spring, 3,100 campus beds, the University announced earlier this month, will be full. Though capacity will still be limited to one person per bedroom, this creeping advance towards normal college life is exciting — but also has us worried. More students returning to Cambridge and the loosening of public health restrictions come spring means the ghost of a campus that’s existed these past eight months is coming back to life. The question remains, however, whether it will haunt us.
The University showed the strength of its pandemic planning this fall, keeping undergraduate COVID cases to 29: leaps and bounds better than what other campuses managed. This victory was hard-won. Rigorous testing, zero guests, no indoor socialization, and taxing isolation were the way this semester. More students will have the option to partake in that experience this spring, with conditions potentially relaxed in accordance with a five-tiered system the College has laid out that modulates how restrictive campus looks in a manner “directly tied to student behavior and public health conditions.”
We miss our friends and the hubbub of normal college life that our unthinking past selves took for granted. These past nine months have been hard, isolating, and sometimes desolate. Establishing even a semblance of normalcy and keeping students sane are important priorities, and in ramping up safe capacity, the University deserves credit for enabling students who want it to have a campus atmosphere to return to. But keeping undergraduates — and the professors, graduate students, and staff who make our University what it is — safe remains critical, even with vaccine distribution on the horizon.
This is the balance that must be struck in reopening next semester, and Harvard’s attitude on how to strike it seems just about right. The University’s communications on the decision were open and frank, providing information about the tiered system of reopening and concrete details about what kinds of socializing will or will not be restricted on campus, depending on the intensity of communal spread. But they also projected optimism about the move, with other plans to pilot some in-person instruction coming as part of a broader effort to prepare for a resumption of normal campus life.
Optimism is great, but so is honesty. So while the upbeat tone was heartening, most of the reason we appreciated these communications is that they dealt with the concrete questions of what and how much will be restricted that students need to make informed choices about whether or not to return.
That said, juniors and seniors are arguably far more likely than their younger peers to socialize in potentially dangerous ways. First, they have far more access to peripheral social spaces, like finals clubs, which the University can’t control. Second, they have a higher percentage of 21-plus students, who can not only purchase alcohol but go to bars and other venues for transmission. Third, they have a place to pick up — their social careers arrested in mid-flight last March, painfully suspended over nine long months. As such, juniors and seniors have the means and impetus to party and illicitly socialize in a way freshmen really didn’t.
Moreover, they lack the trepidation of freshmen, who, fresh and unjaded, are more likely to follow College policies. Juniors and seniors have dealt with College disciplinary structures before; they know how to dodge enforcement, and they are just less likely to take threats seriously than their younger peers.
To be sure, we’re glad that the college’s plan for reopening includes the possibility of indoor socialization, beginning at “level three” when students are allowed to welcome one visitor at a time into their rooms. With most of the semester spent in the coldest, most miserable Cambridge months, outdoor socialization will be more difficult than ever and students will be more isolated than ever. It’s clear that the worst is yet to come and moderate, controlled indoor socialization is something that should definitely be considered given low-to-no case counts.
But it’s a fine line to walk, and sanctioned indoor socialization — combined with the penchants of seniors and juniors — may well have its consequences.
The College, like so many institutions, continues to have its work cut out. The balance, as it has been, for these last nine months is between the socio-emotional well being of the community and the physical health of that community and the city it occupies. We’re no doubt worried about what’s to come — we’ve still got a tough way to go. But on balance, the College has done a solid job — in the material of its plan and the specificity of its communication.
Until the spring!
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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