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Notes from Day Two: How Not To Shut Down

By Jonathan G. Yuan
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The University carried out its announcement that students must move out and transition to remote instruction by this coming Sunday due to concerns over the outbreak of novel coronavirus in a manner that ensured only anxiety and chaos would ensue in its wake. The last two days — amid tears, parties that have overflowed into the streets, half-attended classes, and the panic of figuring out where to live and how to get there — have made that inevitability all too clear.

A global pandemic is, no doubt, unpredictable. And it would be absurd to criticize the University for an evolving response to an evolving situation. But the University’s mixed messaging has left students to face the uncertainty of pandemic alone without the ubiquitous paternalism of the College.

Students were informed on Friday, March 6, that all University-related air travel was prohibited, and that personal air travel was seriously discouraged. Travel, multiple emails warned, can increase the risk of exposure to coronavirus. This seemed to imply that students should cancel flights home to comply with the University’s suggestions.

Evidently this concern expired just four days later. Suddenly — in a truly fantastic about-face — the University demanded everyone out by Sunday — by plane, by train, by foot … it didn’t matter. If you had canceled a ticket home, you’d better rebook it.

The logistical demands this imposes are obvious. Expecting students to pack and store their things, make travel arrangements, and grapple with visa implications over five days — while somehow not canceling classes and only formally postponing assignments late the next evening — creates an impossible storm that disrespects student well-being.

To be sure, additional support has slowly been revealed — $200 for students on financial aid to subsidize storage, travel booking assistance, and some clarification on shipping procedures. But the initial panic caused by the University’s choice to drop this announcement with only the sparest of details was undeniable. Overcrowded offices, FAQs with phone numbers as “answers,” and faculty deans only scantly more informed than their students served no one.

Even the pathways that the University did initially provide for student support were on face ill-formed. Expecting distressed students to apply within 24 hours for University housing seems unrealistic — not least for those who lack a feasible place to go.

Moreover, students have been left puzzling over any number of questions. Why, for example, when on-campus storage in the Houses is guaranteed under normal circumstances, has it been taken away when we have the shortest notice possible to pack our lives away? Is it any coincidence that the decision came the morning after the seventh Monday — the last day college students may withdraw from courses?

Silence on these decisions — a lack of transparency, as we (with a hope that now seems sweetly naive) called for on Tuesday — makes them, at best, seem cruelly arbitrary and, to the more cynical, potentially ill-intended. Either way, it erodes faith at a time when faith is most needed.

The stress this rollout put on low-income and international students, as we made clear yesterday, is shameful. Telling a student to book a last-minute plane ticket for potentially thousands of dollars without making clear a contingency plan or explicitly articulating whether Harvard will financially support them is irresponsible.

Students from countries with lock-downs and travel restrictions are left particularly vulnerable, as they may be unable to return home but received no guarantee that they would be able to remain on campus. Even students that are not in these regions will be traveling into areas, both domestic and abroad, significantly impacted by the outbreak.

And coronavirus isn’t the only boogeyman waiting at home. Nicholas T. “Nick” Wyville ’20 put it best. “Harvard prides itself on having a massive student body that is a large percentage on financial aid,” he said, “I think that they forget that those are the same students who often come from home situations that are uncomfortable.” While the University can’t ameliorate these situations, we can’t help but wish today’s announcements of additional supportive measures were there to reassure them yesterday.

The administration’s call for undergraduates to “engage as a community” and “draw strength from each other” rings hollow when students lack support from the University itself. Even so, student organizations stepped up to fill the void left by the Harvard administration. The Undergraduate Council and Harvard Primus, a first-generation students community, compiled guides on essential details like returning books to the library and donating items to Habitat for Humanity. Groups organized crowd-funding drives to help mitigate the burden on low-income students. Others are offering to help move boxes.

These efforts are inspiring but we just wish they were unnecessary. More than wishing to stay on campus, we wish that we felt more taken care of by the University.

To our peers: good luck; take care of yourselves and each other. Our hearts go out to you, wherever your home for the next few months may end up.

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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