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Public Health Experts Weigh In on University Coronavirus Response

Public health experts largely support the University's decision to transition to remote instruction and restrict the student presence on campus.
Public health experts largely support the University's decision to transition to remote instruction and restrict the student presence on campus. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Fiona K. Brennan, Crimson Staff Writer

Public health experts largely support the University’s decision to transition to remote instruction and restrict students' presence on campus as the global coronavirus outbreak grows.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana informed students of the measures in a series of emails Tuesday morning. Khurana asked undergraduates to vacate their rooms no later than Sunday March 15 at 5 p.m. and begin attending courses virtually on March 23, the first day of scheduled classes after spring recess.

As of Tuesday evening, there were 973 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 29 deaths in the United States. Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts Tuesday, after the number of coronavirus cases doubled overnight to 92.

To date, there are nine reported cases in Boston but none on Harvard’s campus.

Harvard School of Public Health epidemiology professor Donald A. Goldmann said that while Harvard’s decision to send students home was “drastic,” the nature of the institution places it in a “unique situation.”

“People are coming from all over the country — in fact, all over the world — and it’s impossible to gauge the likelihood that every single student was or was not exposed to the coronavirus,” Goldmann said. “As people say all the time now, out of an abundance of caution, this is the step that was taken,”

Khurana advised students experiencing difficulties leaving campus on such short notice to contact their resident deans and consult a list of frequently-asked questions.

Topics covered by the FAQs range from the continuity of Harvard University Health Services resources, to financial support for travel expenses, to potential disruptions to academic programming.

Marc Lipsitch, the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the School of Public Health, said the decision was ultimately necessary because of the imminence of a coronavirus outbreak and the nature of students’ living situations.

“I think we were some days or weeks away from having a really big problem on our hands, and the only thing we can do to slow it down is to slow down transmission,” Lipsitch said. “Dorms are not quite cruise ships, but they are pretty densely packed, and some of them aren’t very well ventilated.”

“It’s just better to be in places other than dorms,” he added.

Goldmann said the transition to virtual learning would almost certainly impact the teaching quality of most classes.

“It’s very unlikely that the quality of teaching for every class will be what it is if they were here in person,” Goldmann said. “Let’s face it, most of the professors and the teaching fellows have never taught at any scale virtually.”

He added that with Harvard’s “international and increasingly diverse” student body, the University must take measures to support students who might “suffer” from the disruption.

“I think Harvard has an enormous responsibility to care for students who are displaced by this,” Goldmann said. “Harvard is going to have to get it together to really look out for all of the students who are going to not just be inconvenienced, but perhaps even suffer as a result of this.”

Khurana acknowledged that students may feel “disappointment” with the news but said further instruction would be provided soon on how students can meet the fast turnaround.

“I do not take lightly the apprehension and disappointment you will experience with this news. In the coming days our faculty and staff will be working diligently to implement plans to best support you during this transition,” Khurana said.

Kenneth McIntosh ’58, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, said that while the decision to send students off campus was not guaranteed to curb the spread of coronavirus, it was still a smart move.

“I’m sure that the effort is to try to avoid that and minimize the epidemic. Whether it will be successful or not is not entirely clear, but I think that it’s better to do something that makes epidemiologic sense at this point than to wait,” McIntosh said.

—Staff writer Fiona K. Brennan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FionaBrennan23.

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