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Hundreds of Harvard Undergraduates Petition Against Virtual Fall Semester

In wake of the University's announcement last month that Harvard would resume teaching and research in the fall, undergraduates penned a petition to the administration arguing against a virtual fall semester.
In wake of the University's announcement last month that Harvard would resume teaching and research in the fall, undergraduates penned a petition to the administration arguing against a virtual fall semester. By Allison G. Lee
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

In wake of the University’s announcement last month that Harvard would resume teaching and research in the fall, undergraduates penned a petition to the administration arguing against a virtual fall semester.

Signatories to the petition — dubbed #NoVirtualFall — condemned the University’s plan to hold an open fall “no matter what.” The petition has garnered signatures from nearly 700 undergraduates, parents, and alumni as of Tuesday evening, according to organizer Sanika S. Mahajan ’21.

“We call on Harvard College to postpone, rather than virtually begin, the fall semester if COVID19 conditions prevent the timely commencement of on-campus activities,” the petition reads.

Mahajan said more than 150 signatories provided comments explaining why they oppose an online fall semester and sharing the difficulties virtual learning poses to them.

She added that she decided to launch the petition in response to University Provost Alan M. Garber’s ’76 email last month announcing that Harvard would open for the fall term. The email elicited anxiety and confusion from students, who raised concerns about continued changes to inequality, grading, international travel, and extracurriculars.

Mahajan said she hoped the petition would press the University to prioritize student feedback alongside public health considerations.

The petition cites challenges “vulnerable students” taking online courses might face, including inability to access consistent WiFi, quiet study spaces, and in-person academic resources. It raises further concerns on behalf of students with medical and mental health concerns which may be worsened by studying at home, as well as students in toxic or abusive home situations.

“Harvard has long admitted that one of the most important factors in ensuring the richness of such an education is the diversity of its admitted students,” the petition reads. “Virtual learning, however, also threatens to tear the very fabric of this diversity by eliminating the equalizing force of campus life.”

It also argues that the inequities of virtual education will prove especially detrimental to the incoming freshman class.

“The academic, social and personal rigors of undergraduate life require great adjustment, and facing them virtually without the support of peers and community will intensify the negative effects,” the petition reads.

Finally, the letter expresses skepticism over whether the College has the remote infrastructure to support students from afar.

Mahajan said she worries a fully virtual fall would bring an end to some of the measures Harvard took to level the academic field this spring. In March, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted a universal Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory grading system to account for challenges wrought by COVID-19 after weeks of student debate.

“A virtual fall is rife with inequities, similarly to the end of the spring semester that was conducted virtually,” she said. “This is especially concerning if there was a return to letter grading.”

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email to undergraduates last month that FAS intends to decide no later than July whether the College’s residential campus will reopen for the fall semester.

The #NoVirtualFall effort is not the first petition to express misgivings about the prospect of a virtual fall. Before Garber’s announcement, parents of undergraduates and a group of prospective students both pushed the administration to delay the semester until it can be held on-campus.

Khurana wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that he appreciates students’ suggestions about how the College might open for the fall. He also wrote that administrators will aim to consider these ideas alongside other pragmatic factors, such as the pandemic’s course and testing availability.

"As many students have expressed both directly to the College and in this petition, I want nothing more than to have our students living and learning on campus this fall. With that said, the College will not bring students back to campus unless or until we can do it safely,” Khurana wrote. “While I appreciate students' desires for the fall semester, we must plan for all possibilities and do so with their health, safety, and academic progress as our ultimate priority."

Mahajan said she and other signatories do not presume full knowledge of the factors Harvard will weigh in its planning for the fall term.

“While it’s not our aim to act like we know best about all of that, I think we are putting forth a very clear preference between two options,” Mahajan said.

“Currently, it's a situation where no one even knows what the options might be in a few months,” she added. “But as those options become clearer and clearer, we want to be regularly informed as an entire study body and be involved in those decisions.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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