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Op Eds

In Defense of a Virtual Fall

By Noah D. Dasanaike and Alec N. Kennison
Noah D. Dasanaike ’22, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House. Alec N. Kennison ’22, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.

As students await Harvard’s decision regarding the fall, we must take care to avoid reactionary responses to a potentially online semester. We understand the importance of making the right decision for the sake of students, professors, and the University. Therefore, we believe postponing the upcoming semester — as proposed by a circulating student petition, is an unwise idea — and instead support an additional online fall semester.

Those in favor of postponement claim that virtual semesters are rife with inequities, arguing that campus life offers an equalizing force. This opinion, however, fails to consider numerous conversations regarding systematic inequality at the College. The notion that Harvard operates as a socioeconomic-equalizing power has been strongly disputed in many forums, and the selective use of such an idea is counterproductive to producing change. When the University closes dining halls during spring break, or physically isolates students eligible for the Student Events Fund, or fails to provide adequate mental health resources, or financially incentivizes underprivileged students to clean peers’ bathrooms (as both of us have done), the constant institutional inequalities become tiring. And that’s without considering the never-ending social disparities found in every dimension of University life.

In these ways, and many more, Harvard fails to prove equalizing. So when online learning provides an opportunity to change that, the possibilities are exciting and promising. The provision of certain funded and remote summer research assistantships exclusively to students with significant aid, for example, offers academic opportunities that may have presented a financial barrier in the past. The offering of financial aid for summer courses this year also opens the playing field to those unable to pay full tuition — which, according to financial aid statistics, is a significant portion of students. By promoting these kinds of opportunities, Harvard may effectively ensure an online semester that doesn’t sacrifice academic or financial enrichment.

The argument that the University should postpone the semester because online learning would disadvantage students with difficult home environments is fallacious. Such an action would make it difficult for students to catch up academically — and most importantly, the same amount of time would be spent off-campus anyways. Instead of pursuing this vague, ill-defined course, effectively preparing for an online semester would allow for a much better experience than this prior spring. Students already have the option to postpone the continuation of their education; those who desire to continue learning should have the option to do so too. And a mandatory postponement would impact not just students but potentially the livelihoods of faculty and staff.

Nobody knows what life is going to look like post-COVID-19. Whether social distancing becomes a seasonal necessity, or online and in-person learning become permanently intertwined (as Extension School students have already learned to navigate), or colleges indefinitely reinforce distancing measures, everyone must consider how to personally adapt. By postponing the coming semester, Harvard would only be delaying the inevitable, instead of learning how best to work within its boundaries.

Harvard is only as good as the people within it, and virtual instruction is only as good as we allow it to be. Providing deans and faculty enough preparation time will doubtlessly allow for a more recognizably transformative experience, even if online. While we understand that virtual instruction is hardly comparable to in-person instruction, Harvard can and should prepare for a more equalizing online semester with stronger academic and extracurricular opportunities, so that it is enriching as it has the potential to be. And in turn, students should be understanding of the necessary changes that accompany the uncertainties of unprecedented situations.

Noah D. Dasanaike ’22, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House. Alec N. Kennison ’22, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.

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