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Harvard’s vacillation on Covid-19 policy in the first few weeks of the semester highlights something wrong with the University’s current approach. It’s essential to get these policies right to allow maximum freedom while avoiding an uptick in cases that would necessitate stricter restrictions. But the University’s current policies suggest that Harvard is sacrificing the quality of life and safety of community members to save money.
I understand that funding for University and College programs is not infinite. I’m also grateful that we have in-person classes and dining and can visit each other’s rooms. However, Harvard University Health Services and the Dean of Students Office have been discouraging social interactions while not doing nearly everything possible to prevent the spread of the virus on campus. The University should be doing more of what it can to ensure our safety instead of discouraging socializing and meeting new people.
In an email to the Harvard community, HUHS Executive Director Giang T. Nguyen and Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair wrote, “We have learned so far that parties” (i.e., eating and drinking, removing masks, moving around a room, and talking with multiple people) “are key factors in exposing students to infection risk.” The email suggested masking in all situations and that students limit social interactions to mitigate the risk from indoor parties.
But the email did nothing to describe what the University is doing to help limit the virus’s spread in party situations. I can list here three things that Harvard should be doing, but all require funding.
The first is HEPA filters in each room in every suite. The CDC recommends ventilation improvements as part of its layered approach to fighting transmission. In multiple emails to residential students in the 2020-2021 academic year, administrators recommended continuously running in-room HEPA filters at the highest setting.
The cost of such a program is unclear. Seemingly, the University decided to do away with requiring HEPA filters in every residential and common space this fall. (Last year, all bedrooms and seemingly every open space were serviced by University-provided HEPA filters.) Where are the filters now? In storage? And if they were rented, we need to rent them again.
The second is daily testing. Common sense tells us that daily testing is more effective than the current tri-weekly testing cadence. Best-case scenario, we catch an infection two days early. In the worst-case, we lose, well, nothing except money. More than doubling test frequency would be expensive, but it is worth it if it helps stop the spread of a virus that has taken the lives of more than 675,000 Americans and continues to suffocate our communities. Realistically, aside from financial considerations, increasing testing frequency is only a logistical issue, which we should be prepared for should cases rise.
The third is easily accessible outdoor social and party spaces. If Harvard wants to reduce infection from indoor partying, the answer should be to encourage students to move outside. Many houses and dorms have courtyards and ample outdoor space, but others such as Adams House, whose main courtyard is under construction, and the Inn at Harvard do not. Moreover, many of the Houses that do have outdoor spaces have little furniture besides lounge chairs. Tents and tables are economical and would be much appreciated.
In another email, Dr. Nguyen noted that eating and drinking at mealtimes is partly responsible for the spread of Covid-19 at the University. But again, some of the proposed remedies seem to encourage student action while the University stands idle concerning community health and the student experience. For example, the email suggests that students “dine in small parties of 2-4 people,” “avoid table-hopping,” and “consider dining consistently with the same small group of people rather than a different group at every meal of the day.”
This last point is almost laughable. How can students with different and ever-changing schedules seriously be expected to eat with the same people at each meal? Moreover, what’s the point of in-person dining if we eat with the same two to four people at each meal? Instead, the University should increase dining hours to reduce congestion and create large-scale outdoor dining spaces, which could be used well into the semester. Both these ideas would be complex logistically, considering the politics of Harvard University Dining Services labor and the extent of House outdoor spaces, not to mention the potential cost.
But I argue that this and other costs are worth it if they help students maximize their experience during this difficult time. At some point, the University must take more of a responsibility for the spread of Covid-19. Before asking students to give up important parts of their college experience again, administrators should ask themselves what more they can do to stop the spread without compromising student life.
Kanishka J. Reddy ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.
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