On Jan. 24, days before the start of the spring semester, Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen informed Harvard affiliates in an email that the University would monitor the spread of COVID-19 coming out of Wuhan, China.
Practically speaking, though, he wrote that the flu posed a larger threat on campus than the novel coronavirus.
“As students arrive back on campus and we find ourselves in the midst of cold and flu season, I want to remind you to be vigilant in taking precautions to prevent the spread of illnesses,” Nguyen wrote.
Nguyen’s email marked the first of many Harvard undergraduates would receive about the coronavirus. At first, they concerned Harvard’s centers and activities in far off places.
But while students received emails about travel restrictions and hygiene tips, behind the scenes, College administrators began to discuss more extreme changes the virus might bring about on campus.
Less than two months later, those changes came to pass. On March 10, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote a different kind of message to students: one telling undergraduates Harvard would require them to vacate campus within a week.
A little more than a week after Nguyen’s January email about the coronavirus and the flu, the former arrived in Massachusetts. Nguyen and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’77 informed affiliates in a Feb. 2 email that the first case had appeared at the University of Massachusetts Boston after one of its students returned to campus from Wuhan.
Still, Nguyen and Garber reiterated that the risk of Harvard affiliates contracting the virus was low.
“This is an evolving situation to which Harvard, public health officials, and government agencies are responding in real time, and Harvard may impose new requirements if warranted by changing circumstances,” they wrote.
As those emails entered students’ inboxes, the College’s senior leadership team was engaging in an annual emergency simulation exercise with other University administrators, Khurana said in a Tuesday interview.
Exercises like the ones they ran allow the College to flex its bureaucratic muscles and implement a central framework of values and priorities, which Khurana said ultimately guided each step of the College’s preparations for the potential threat of the coronavirus on campus.
“Since we began monitoring the virus, and that started months back, we in the College basically outlined three values around which we would be making decisions related to the virus,” he said.
In those early days, the College’s “foremost” value was to prioritize community health and well-being. The second was to react to the crisis “proportionally.” The third was to follow official guidelines “not just in letter but in spirit.”
“We wanted to be careful not to overreact, but we also didn't want to under-react,” Khurana said.
On Feb. 29, Khurana wrote in an email to undergraduates that there had still been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Harvard affiliates. He added that the College’s emergency response team was working closely with HUHS, Global Support Services, and other University offices in order to be prepared.
Days later, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay encouraged faculty and staff to begin “contingency planning” for their daily activities in an March 4 email.
“For faculty who may have never used Zoom for teaching, this is a good time to try it out and to get training,” she wrote.
Behind the scenes, Khurana said he was holding “regular calls” with faculty deans and other members of the FAS about contingency planning for the crisis.
“One of the things that we would do is we would go back to our variety of stakeholders, whether it's from the residential, from the educational, from the staff perspective, share what we had learned, understand what their perspectives were, what questions needed to be addressed, what were the ideas they had for addressing certain concerns, and then that itself would become the input for subsequent phone calls,” he said.
As College figures met, coronavirus-related emails sent to College affiliates began to accumulate.
March 4 marked the inauguration of Harvard’s biweekly coronavirus updates, which Harvard College Emergency Management Team co-director Michael "Mike" P. Burke announced he would send every Monday and Thursday afternoon.
Burke added that the College would keep four dining halls open during spring break to accommodate students who had decided to alter their plans to travel and instead remain on campus — a move that, coupled with the changing situation abroad, caused many students to cancel their flights home.
Over the next week, the College axed several large in-person events. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 informed admitted students in a March 6 email that the College had canceled Visitas, its annual admitted students weekend, moving to a virtual model for the class of 2024. Three days later, Burke announced that Harvard would indefinitely postpone Housing Day — an annual event in which freshmen students are assigned to an upperclassmen house.
But the next morning, students received news that dwarfed those cancellations. After months of simulations, strategy calls, and incremental changes, the College took dramatic action.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 10, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote to affiliates on March 10 that Harvard courses would move to remote instruction beginning March 23 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Students are asked not to return to campus after Spring Recess and to meet academic requirements remotely until further notice," Bacow wrote. "Students who need to remain on campus will also receive instruction remotely and must prepare for severely limited on-campus activities and interactions.”
Perhaps even more consequentially, Khurana followed Bacow’s email with one that spelled out a clear message for undergraduates: they were to evacuate campus by Sunday.
Resident Dean of Winthrop House Linda D. M. Chavers said the College informed resident deans of an imminent undergraduate evacuation just 12 hours before it was announced to students.
Similarly, Quincy House Faculty Dean Lee Gehrke said in a March 21 interview that, though faculty deans had participated in discussions about coronavirus contingency plans, they were not privy to the final decision to have students continue courses remotely for the rest of the semester.
“I think the information that we got is very similar to yours,” Gehrke said. “My assessment of that is just built on looking at the emails that we got as faculty deans and looking at students’ and they're essentially the same thing, nearly identical.”
Students spent the narrow window of five days in a state of whiplash, frantically packing up their belongings, arranging transport home, bidding hasty goodbyes to friends, and partying. Seniors processed the potential loss of their graduation, athletes grieved the loss of their sports seasons, and many first-generation, low-income students panicked about the impending loss of on-campus jobs that had financially supported themselves and their families.
Khurana said he is unable to pin down any “key moment” in the spring semester when administrators arrived at their unprecedented decision to evacuate undergraduates. Instead, he said he largely remembered the framework that guided it.
Though Khurana called the decision “historic,” he added that the College had previously developed a robust system of emergency protocols to handle outbreaks of other “rapid, infectious” diseases like SARS and mumps.
Khurana said that though “hindsight is 20/20,” he stands by the decision.
“We’d rather be critiqued for doing too much too soon than too little too late,” he said.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.