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When I was getting ready to move away from home just eight short months ago, so many people told me that college was going to be the best four years of my life.
And they were right about everything except the four years part. The nights with friends, the random discussions with my professors, and the study sessions in Annenberg have made up the happiest days of my life. Those moments, which have already had such a profound influence on who I am and what I believe, are going to make Harvard the best 3.75 years of my life.
Please, Harvard, don’t reduce it to the best 3.25 years. Don’t take any more of those precious moments on campus away from us than we’ve already lost by putting classes online in the fall.
With a careful plan in place, I believe that it is possible and it is necessary for colleges to reopen in August. Boston’s mayor, Martin J. Walsh, has stated that he anticipates that students will return to Boston-area colleges in the fall.
As a student, that’s reassuring to hear. But one thing concerns me: Harvard College has committed to making a decision on the fall semester by July. University President Lawrence S. Bacow has stated his concern that there will still be much uncertainty even when a decision has to be made, and the University recently announced that Harvard “will be open for fall 2020” — indicating that it will not consider delaying the semester considerably or canceling it altogether, as many students have called on them to consider.
If there’s anything this pandemic has taught me, it’s how quickly scientific understanding, my own thoughts, and the world around me can change. Unfortunately, this necessitates last-minute decisions, not careful long-term planning.
Two months ago, I was focused on what I should order at Veggie Grill and when I should go to Widener Library to pick up books for my legal anthropology paper. Now, students are scattered across the globe, largely confined to our homes, worrying about our friends and loved ones as we watch the death toll from COVID-19 continue to climb. Two months from now in late June, our understanding of the virus will have undoubtedly changed quite significantly. Two months from then — our hoped-for return to campus — there might be a much better understanding of how this virus is spread and how to minimize risk through testing and contact-tracing.
More and more universal testing and serological studies across the world are suggesting that we’ve been undercounting cases by a very large margin. Nearly 25 percent of New York City residents may already have developed antibodies to the virus, a quickly increasing percentage that is a lagging indicator of the true number of infections by about three weeks. On the treatment side, there are also promising developments, most notably the drug remdesivir — the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled study are expected within the next few weeks.
So much can change in such a short period of time. A cautious decision that seems necessary in June may not seem necessary come August.
Things will get better; the world will stabilize.
That’s why I worry that students’ and administrators’ desire for a quick decision will lead to an overcautious one.
I urge Harvard’s administration to, of course, keep our community safe above all else. But I also urge them not to make decisions that could even more seriously fragment and dilute our college experiences before it is absolutely necessary to do so.
We have shown our ability to leave campus within five days; we are capable of adapting and switching gears last-minute when necessary. That many students would consider taking a leave of absence if the fall semester were online is a testament to the fact that we are at Harvard to learn and soak up all that we can from campus life, not to get a fancy line on our resume and a nice diploma to hang on our future office wall.
Just as Harvard set the example for other universities in March by making the difficult decision to send students home, it now needs to set the example in thinking outside of the box and do everything in its power to bring us back to campus safely for the entirety of the fall semester. We know that campus will feel very different when we come back, but please don’t underestimate the lengths we are willing to go to adapt and follow new safety guidelines.
While I hope it never comes to this, if Harvard is forced to choose between making a devastating yet decisive decision in early July or holding out a glimmer of hope until later in July or August, it should wait. I would prefer a last-minute decision with the hope of a return — no matter how much chaos it might create — than yet another devastating one.
If circumstances force Harvard to keep us away from campus in September, and the administration maintains that they will not postpone or even cancel the semester, then all students must be given full, unrestricted, unconditional permission — regardless of financial aid status or graduation year or reason — to take a one-semester leave of absence. We’re at Harvard to be at Harvard, and it’s heartbreaking to think about just the nine weeks this spring that we’re missing out on. We have worked so hard and sacrificed so much for this opportunity. We can’t lose any more time on campus than we have already lost, for every moment is precious.
Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.
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