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Undergrads Adjust to Virtual Fall Semester

2020 in Review: All Classes Held Remotely in Unprecedented Fall Semester

Harvard held its first-ever fully virtual semester this fall, with classes convening on Zoom.
Harvard held its first-ever fully virtual semester this fall, with classes convening on Zoom. By Sara Komatsu
By Taylor C. Peterman, Crimson Staff Writer

This story is part of The Crimson's Ten Stories That Shaped 2020 series. To view other parts, click here.

Harvard announced in July that it would welcome only freshmen and students with extenuating circumstances to campus for the fall semester and conduct its courses entirely online.

Though the College had planned to provide accommodations for up to 40 percent of its undergraduate population, just a quarter of students elected to live on campus.

Despite being among the class invited to campus, international freshmen were unable to live in residence due to federal visa restrictions.

Barred from on-campus housing, some upperclassmen opted to return to the Boston area anyway, taking up rentals with friends. Others chose to venture much farther from the Yard, settling in locales like Hawaii, Utah, New York, and Rhode Island.

Many undergraduates mulled taking a leave of absence or gap year upon learning of another semester of virtual classes. Ultimately, nearly 20 percent of students chose not to enroll for the fall semester, decreasing enrollment from 6,755 students last year to 5,382 students this year.

Students living on campus arrived in Cambridge in late August at pre-assigned times spread over a week. Once on campus, residents underwent Covid-19 testing, picked up their keys and pre-packaged meals, and moved into their dorms for a mandated quarantine.

In October, Harvard sent three freshmen living in Mather House back home for hosting an indoor party with at least three other guests. That incident marked the only confirmed case of the College’s Community Council — a group of student volunteers, faculty, and staff members organized to enforce health and safety requirements — disciplining undergraduates for violating the rules.

With all academic and extracurricular activities rendered virtual, some enrolled students reported feelings of Zoom fatigue throughout the semester. “We can't take for granted how important it is to have that student interaction, and it can't necessarily be replicated on Zoom. It's just not the same,” Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair said of the online transition.

International students of all class years reported an onslaught of challenges during the fall semester, grappling with midnight classes and limited extracurricular and social opportunities.

“My extracurriculars are all but dead,” one international student said in a September interview with The Crimson. “My life at home has been reduced to academic work.”

Back on campus, many student-athletes living in residence said they were “grateful” to be able to meet with coaches and teammates to participate in sport-specific training for a portion of the semester.

Though the Ivy League canceled fall and winter sports, the College permitted student-athletes to participate in strength and conditioning training for an hour each day, during which they wore masks and maintained a six-foot distance.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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