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Harvard to House Freshmen, Select Upperclassmen for Fall Semester

Harvard unveiled its fall 2020 residential plans Monday.
Harvard unveiled its fall 2020 residential plans Monday. By Allison G. Lee
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard said Monday that it will open its dorms to the Class of 2024 this fall, asking sophomores, juniors, and seniors to seek approval to return.

The decision comes as coronavirus cases in the United States continue to rise, complicating reopening plans at businesses and universities. University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in a Monday email announcing the decision that they determined housing more than 40 percent of undergraduates could leave Harvard “again facing the prospect of asking our students to leave, on short notice, prior to the end of the semester.”

In addition to freshmen, Harvard will host as many students who “must be on campus to progress academically” this fall as it can without exceeding the 40 percent threshold. All courses will be taught virtually for students both on and off campus.

Bacow, Gay, and Khurana wrote that Harvard decided to invite freshmen to campus because of their “unique position” in transitioning to college amid the pandemic.

“They have not yet begun to build their Harvard network of faculty, advisors, and friends or learn about life in the Yard,” Bacow, Gay, and Khurana wrote. “Even with the many adaptations that will be in place this fall, we see enormous value in having them on campus in our residential system.”

Aside from freshmen, the College will fill the remaining spots with students who meet various criteria: those who lack a sufficiently updated computer, fast internet, a quiet place to work, and unhindered time to commit to coursework; those who have challenging home and family circumstances or shelter and food insecurities; and those who require accessible learning resources or assistive technology on campus not available remotely.

The last cohort permitted to petition comprises seniors whose theses require laboratories, “practice based” work that cannot be done virtually, or non-digitized resources from libraries, archives, or museums.

Bacow, Khurana, and Gay wrote that the College will not change its tuition fees — which climbed slightly from the 2019-2020 rate — though enrolled students living off-campus will not pay for room and board. For students on financial aid, the College’s Financial Aid Office will calculate their aid award with a “COVID-19 Remote Room and Board” allowance of $5,000 per semester. The College will also relieve them of their term-time work expectation this fall.

The steady tuition fees come as students across the country — including some at Harvard — file class action suits demanding lowered tuition for virtual learning, and as universities face significant financial challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, Gay said the University seriously considered three options for the fall, termed “minimal,” “moderate,” and “full” density.

Similarly, the College is now considering three spring options. The first model, which assumes worsened conditions, would send freshmen home and keep only students who must learn from campus. The second model would swap freshmen out for seniors, and the third would welcome back multiple class cohorts.

Harvard will offer students who study remotely for the full academic year the opportunity to return to campus during summer 2021 to take two tuition-free courses at Harvard Summer School.

The College anticipates releasing its decision about the spring semester — including a delayed start date — in early December.

In late June, College officials hinted at the path they would eventually select for the spring, telling a focus group of undergraduates to comment on social engineering plans with the second, moderate pathway in mind. Those plans included 10- to 15-person isolation pods, dining restrictions, and a social distancing honor pledge.

In the months spent anticipating Monday’s announcement, many College students mulled whether they would prefer to take a leave of absence rather than complete a full semester of classes online. Unlike the spring, during which Harvard adopted an emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system, normal letter grades will return in the fall. Nearly 45 percent of surveyed students reported they were very likely to take a leave in the case of a virtual semester, according to an Undergraduate Council poll run in April.

Harvard has extended the deadline for freshmen to defer enrollment to July 24. The College has also trained a team of advisors to assist upperclassmen considering a leave of absence in making their decision.

In March, colleges and universities largely moved in lockstep when deciding to send students home. In the fall, they will diverge: the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University both announced they plan to reopen most residence halls and modify their schedules, whereas MIT and Yale University said at most 60 percent of the school’s undergraduates will return to campus. Harvard’s plan is more stringent than those proposed by its peers, nearly all of whom will house upperclassmen in some form.

“As one member of our planning group reminded us last week, we navigate this history-making moment without a roadmap. Harvard will be changed by the choices we make now, and this crisis gives us an incredible opportunity to change it for the better,” Bacow, Gay, and Khurana wrote.

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

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

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