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After University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 announced Monday that Harvard would resume teaching and research in the fall, undergraduates met the news with a flurry of questions about their future.
As the coronavirus pandemic progresses, students have speculated for weeks about whether they would be able to return to Cambridge in the fall. Some Harvard affiliates — including parents and incoming freshmen — have penned open letters to administrators, urging Harvard to delay its fall semester rather than continue remote instruction if the coronavirus pandemic precludes in-person classes.
Garber’s email put to rest the possibility of a delayed start but left much else uncertain. He wrote that administrators are still considering many options for the fall.
Some students reacted to Monday’s news with relief. Tomasz Cienkowski ’22 said he worried that, if the College were to delay the semester and he returned home to Poland, he would be barred from returning to campus due to a temporary ban on the entry of European foreign nationals into the United States.
“I’m not sure if I would gamble on going home just because I don’t know whether the ban would be lifted by the time I come back,” Cienkowski said. “[Delaying the semester] works great for people who live in this country and have the rights to freely move across the country, but it doesn’t work as well for international students should the immigration restrictions remain in place.”
Others, however, said they were disappointed by the news. Nancy Hu ’22 said she would rather forego most of winter break than take fall classes remotely.
Sadaf T. Khan ’22 — who also supports a delayed start — said he felt Garber’s email “brushed over” the reason why the University was no longer entertaining the possibility of a postponed fall semester.
“Basically, it said that we’re having classes upcoming semester no matter what. And they didn’t give us sufficient reason as to why they took that other option off the table. So I would have preferred — or I would have appreciated — if the provost laid out the reasoning,” he said.
Asked about student criticisms, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment beyond Garber’s email.
Some students said Garber’s email resurfaced challenges students initially faced when they headed home mid-semester — concerns about inequality, grading, international travel, and extracurriculars among them.
A full semester of remote instruction would present challenges for first-generation, low-income students even greater than the ones they faced this spring, Jordan H. Barton ’23 said.
“How are they going to accommodate FGLI students, especially that come from unstable homes and that had a hard time transitioning home in the first place?” he said. “How are they going to be expected not just to go through with finishing classes, but selecting classes, advising, picking concentrations, especially people that will be going into their sophomore year? And how will we receive services, especially for things like Internet?”
Cienkowski questioned whether Harvard would modify grading for the fall semester if courses were to continue online. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a universal Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory grading system this semester to account for challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic after weeks of student debate.
“The idea behind SAT-UNSAT this semester was that they said, since students have such vastly unequal access to resources and to a good learning environment, we can’t grade them on a letter basis,” he said. “But if classes continue online, nothing changes.”
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email to undergraduates that FAS plans to decide no later than July whether the College’s residential campus will reopen for the fall semester.
Several students said they appreciated the advance notice as they aim to book travel and make plans for the fall. In March, students had just five days to plan their exit from Cambridge; now, they will likely have months to plan a potential return.
“For international students, every single flight is so expensive. Every single move that you make is a huge financial burden on your parents’ part,” said Yejin Kim ’22, an international student from South Korea.
But even if they can make plans with adequate notice, some international students said they are skeptical of the merits of virtual learning.
Kim said if the fall term were to occur remotely, she would consider taking a semester off to avoid online courses and seek an internship near her home in South Korea, where the severity of the pandemic has begun to wane.
Daniel J. Forrest ’23 — an international student from Australia — specifically cited time zone differences as a drawback of online courses. He added that he and several other Australian students even considered petitioning the College to allow international students to participate in a “study abroad” program at home.
Cienkowski, Kim, and Forrest all questioned how the University would accommodate students who would elect to take a leave of absence the fall semester if it were to occur online.
“It seems to me that if 80 percent of students take a leave of absence in the fall, let’s say, and then the freshmen also come in, and then all these people want to come back to campus in the spring, there may not be enough space for them,” Cienkowski said.
Aside from academic concerns, several students cited other parts of their college experience that a partially or fully online semester will change.
Kevin T. Stephen ’20 — the manager of the Harvard Krokodiloes, a campus acapella group — said he is grateful for the added “clarity” the administration has given in recent messages. Still, he said the fall presents challenges for performing arts groups like his.
“If we’re not on campus in the fall, there’s no telling if we’ll even have a group. Auditions might not be possible, rehearsals might not be possible,” he said. “Even if we are at school, on campus, there’s no telling if concerts, gigs, performances will still be happening as they were in previous years.”
As the entire world awaits more information about the state of the pandemic in the coming months, Benjamin J. Dreier ’22 said he understands the University’s challenging position in deciding its path forward for the upcoming academic year.
“There’s a lot of speculation that’s happening. And there’s a lot of people making plans, but no one really knows what’s going to happen,” Dreier said. “The only decision maker right now is the virus.”
—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.
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