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Five Takeaways from Harvard College’s Fall Planning Town Hall

Harvard Yard is home to most of the first-year dorms on Harvard’s campus.
Harvard Yard is home to most of the first-year dorms on Harvard’s campus. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard College hosted a town hall Tuesday afternoon to update affiliates on the administration’s planning process for what is certain to be a singular fall semester.

More than two thousand affiliates tuned into the Zoom event, at which Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana spoke in conversation with Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh, Dean of Students Katherine G. O'Dair, and Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of Harvard College Emergency Management Mike Burke about how the College plans to address continued COVID-19 concerns when classes resume.

O'Dair began her remarks by acknowledging that preoccupations with the pandemic and fall planning have been surmounted in recent days by the nationwide tragedy and outcry against police brutality and anti-black racism prompted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade.

“I want to note that we're doing this work of preparing to return to campus while our society is literally burning,” O’Dair said.

Administrators spent most of the town hall offering insight into the highly structured planning process for the fall term. Burke said there are more than 100 people advising the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, College, and University leadership on planning for the fall term, including public health experts, faculty, staff, and students.

FAS currently has 11 working groups dedicated to different areas of preparation: decision framework; five-year horizon; financial planning; “Go for Fall”; restarting scholarship, houses and facilities; enrollment; scheduling; testing and tracing; remote experience; and Division of Continuing Education coordination.

Khurana said the working groups are each guided by four principles: ensuring health and safety, protecting the College’s academic enterprise, leveraging the “breadth and diversity” of the Harvard community, and preserving access and affordability. He said administrators intend to send students information about returning to campus by early July.

As Harvard decides the format of the fall semester, administrators said they are committed to keeping open channels of communication between the working groups and affiliates.

“Let me be very clear, preparing campus for students is our top priority,” Burke said.

Fall Semester Will Mark Return to Normal Grading

Claybaugh said the coming fall semester would mark a return to normal grading. She explained that administrators designed this spring’s Emergency Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory system to address the unanticipated changes to course formats and student life after the campus evacuation.

“Emergency grading was passed for one semester only because the emergency it addressed was the abrupt interruption of the semester and the abrupt scattering of the students, the abrupt translation of courses to online formats,” she said. “None of that will be the case in the fall.”

Some students have expressed anxiety that a remote fall semester will subject them to the same inequities that prompted the switch to emergency grading in the first place, such as lack of internet access, study spots, and on-campus support resources.

Responding to those concerns, Claybaugh said the administration will ensure all students “can do their best work” in the case of a virtual fall by distributing loaner laptops and hotspots, as well as bringing undergraduates who lack quiet study spaces at home back to campus.

“This is the new normal,” she said. “We are going to have to work together as a community to find new ways of living and working until there's a vaccine. And so we can't kind of put a pause on everything, including the giving of grades.”

Current ‘Liberal’ Leave of Absence Policy Will Not Change

O’Dair said the College will not change its current “liberal” leave of absence policy, which allows students to take time off if they choose.

In recent weeks, some students have said they would consider taking a leave of absence next semester should courses continue online. However, many made the caveat that their decision was contingent upon whether the College would change its leave of absence policies, such as withholding financial aid or forcing students to take multiple semesters off.

O’Dair said she wanted to stress that College students should have the same choice of taking a semester off as they would under normal circumstances.

“The only constraint we have is a structural one, not a policy one,” she said. “In the best of times with our fully dense campus we are at capacity in our houses in the yard. So if we have a surge of students taking a leave, we may not be able to house everyone upon their return. And that's not accounting for a possible reduced activity.”

She said the College hopes to share more information regarding leaves in the coming weeks, as the planning process moves toward a final decision about the fall term.

Administrators Will Work to Support International Students

Claybaugh said the administrators would also take steps to confront the unique challenges international students face.

She first cited time zone differences, which kept some international students from synchronously participating in classes and required others to stay awake outside of “acceptable waking hours.”

Claybaugh said the Office of Undergraduate Education is working to adapt course schedules to mitigate these problems.

“I was also very surprised and distressed to hear from some of you that you had trouble with faculty refusing to or being reluctant to videotape courses for you,” she said. “We will absolutely require that in the fall.”

Claybaugh further acknowledged that visa regulations will likely raise thorny questions for international students about if and when they will be able to return to campus.

“Here, the answers are not in our hands,” she said. “They're in the hands of the government.”

She added that the administration is actively monitoring the situation and communicating with “government liaisons,” as well as repurposing the Office of International Education as “frontline advising” for international students.

Student Return Aside, Classes Will Be Online

Claybaugh said it remains unclear in what capacity the student body will return to campus in the fall. The current possibilities on the table run the gamut: bringing all students back, just some students, or none.

“But one thing is becoming clear,” Claybaugh said. “Wherever students end up living, whatever kind of residential arrangements were able to make, learning is going to have to be to a large extent — if not entirely — remote.”

She said as the public health situation becomes more clear, it has also become harder to imagine how students can safely gather in large lecture halls for courses without transmitting the virus.

Burke noted that one of Harvard’s Science Center lecture halls, which can normally accommodate hundreds of students, could theoretically seat only 87 students with proper social distancing procedures in place.

“That's our biggest lecture hall,” he said. “So you can get a sense of the scale.”

The Office of Undergraduate Education has gathered information from peer universities, faculty feedback, and student course evaluations from this spring to determine how to best approach another semester of online education.

For example, Claybaugh said many students expressed that courses where undergraduates could maintain connections with classmates and faculty members were the most successful.

“That's good news for us because that's actually our brand,” Claybaugh said. “What we do all the time, residentially, is create strong connections in the classroom among students and between students and faculty, so it’s just a matter of figuring out how to translate that into an online format.”

She added that her working group is also noting the needs of classes that face particular challenges adapting online, including those in the lab sciences, language courses, and arts classes.

Claybaugh also said all faculty members and teaching fellows will be undergoing training this summer to make their remote courses more engaging and effective.

College Seeks Student Return, With an Eye Toward the School’s Context

Khurana said administrators have the shared goal of safely returning all students to campus as soon as possible.

“I recognize how important our presence with each other matters for our sense of the structured serendipity of meeting somebody new, to talking between classes and after classes, to connecting on the shuttle buses, to be able to return to our dorms and to our houses, to hear a conversation and be invited into that,” he said.

Still, Khurana added that the Harvard community is deeply embedded in Cambridge.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “Harvard can't make its decisions without considering its impact on the broader environment that we're in.”

O’Dair said a “social compact” regarding social distancing norms would be imperative to a successful return to campus life.

“I heard from many students that they want to return to campus and are willing to comply with whatever the rules are. And in principle that sounds simple,” she said. “But in reality, we know this is complex because it relies on individual actions to support a collective environment.”

“We will need to build a culture where a physical distance and measures are respected and adhered to not because it is the rule, but because it's our shared responsibility,” she added.

—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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