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Fall 2020: 100 Percent Online, 40 Percent Residential, 0 Percent Certain

By Megan M. Ross
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

This week — 118 anxious days after Harvard ordered its students leave campus mid-semester — the College made its long-awaited announcement detailing how the 2020-2021 academic year will unfold.

One hundred percent online classes. Zero percent tuition reduction. Forty percent density in residence, with housing only guaranteed for freshmen. For them, plus the upperclassmen who manage to successfully petition for on-campus housing, alien and isolated living conditions await, marked by the prospect of three solitary bagged meals per day and two mandatory COVID tests per week. The only social spaces left open on campus? Laundry rooms.

Harvard’s cautious roadmap for reopening amid America’s surging coronavirus outbreak — guided by an evidence-based and expert-led risk management approach — stands in stark contrast to the denialist narrative coming from the executive branch of the federal government. Its playbook has been to downplay the pandemic’s spread, despite Friday marking a record high of new daily coronavirus cases and eight states setting records for daily coronavirus deaths this week, and to bully schools into reopening with international students as the bargaining chip.

President Donald Trump himself called Harvard’s plan “ridiculous.” We disagree.

Harvard’s decision to limit the number of undergraduate students on campus and to instigate strict social distancing and public health precautions for the 40 percent who do return is a responsible one. These high-level choices reflect a broader belief in the value of public health and safety — and more fundamentally, of human life — that we share. They also reflect a belief in making decisions that are grounded in evidence, even when the evidence doesn’t make us feel great.

Our trust that Harvard’s decision will protect our community’s health and safety doesn’t make its impact any less heartbreaking. Something serious is being lost here: The college experience we imagined pre-pandemic is gone. This journey we set out on together no longer feels shared, as class-years become splintered by geography, time zones, and an anticipated avalanche of leaves of absence.

To our classmates: This sucks so much. We miss you. But the situation we find ourselves in isn’t Harvard’s doing. Reprehensible federal governance is entirely to blame.

Still, doing better than the Trump administration definitely doesn’t mean you’re doing great. Despite its stated commitment to transparent communication, the College’s initial rollout of its reopening plan has been confusing and left many questions unanswered.

What will life on campus look like for the 40 percent of undergraduates on campus? Will they be able to interact with … anyone? Administrators floated limited social “pods” of 10 to 15 students, but in the College’s bare bones and dystopian Residential Community Compact, they are nowhere to be found. With the deadline to petition for on-campus housing Monday, we’re still left wondering what campus life will look like — what traditions, joys, and degree of social interaction will remain.

And of perhaps equal significance, Harvard needs to ensure that students taking time off — especially low-income and international students — have a place on campus to return to. Despite the logistical difficulties, Harvard needs to make good on its four-year residential promise.

How will academics work? The College recently mandated two to four hours of live interaction per week, per course regardless of the timezone — how this will play out around the world is anyone’s guess. Classes requiring hands-on learning will have to be transfigured, if possible, to an online setting. Pre-registration, the norm for most other schools, is now required for the first time at Harvard. How will these new changes affect course offerings and experience?

Why charge full tuition? This decision implies that the entire Harvard experience — or at least the parts worth paying for — can be replicated in full on a laptop, sending a striking message about what Harvard believes to be the value of the education it provides. What are we paying for: the experience or the brand?

And what of the cost of living? “Obviously,” as Harvard’s top administrators put it, no one living off-campus will be paying for room and board. But the $5,000 the College will award students receiving financial aid — full or partial — seems deeply insufficient. It’s better this allowance exists than not, but it will significantly disincentivize both moving on-campus and taking time off for students who, amid mass unemployment and a recession, need the cash but might benefit from either of those options. Moreover, why isn’t this allowance distributed according to the degree of student’s financial aid?

Likewise, the emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system has been abandoned — but have the concerns that brought this grading system about gone away? Not really. How can students — or even faculty for that matter — be sure that the fall’s Zoom classes will really be all that much smoother than the spring’s? And why does the University presume the personal and socioeconomic issues that troubled many students in the spring have suddenly disappeared?

How will campus mental health services adapt to provide online services, with demand likely to increase as the stress and disorder of pandemic life carries on without pause? That can’t be an afterthought. Every passing day of this global crisis makes it an ever more pressing concern.

Harvard shared its plans with only a month to go until shopping week. Presumably, the College needed time to iron out a comprehensive reopening plan and make a decision up-to-date with public health realities. Why, then, after so many weeks of waiting, are students still having to track down answers to obvious questions?

We’re grateful for Harvard’s caution when it comes to public health, but student life concerns — now spread across the globe — require the same rigorous consideration.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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