Harvard will be ‘open’ in the fall, but what does that mean?

The Ivy League university is considering plans for how to handle classes later this year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise questions about the future.

Notices were fraying on a bulletin board in Harvard Yard at Harvard University on Monday. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

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Harvard University will be “open” for classes and research this fall, the institution announced Monday.

But what exactly does that look like? As the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, the details are still in the works, school leaders say.

In an open letter to the Harvard community, Provost Alan Garber wrote that a “range of scenarios has been and will continue to be evaluated for the fall, from fully restored on-campus activities – a ‘normal’ return to campus – to delaying the opening of the university until next spring semester.”

“The consequences of any major decision for a large and complex university like Harvard are themselves complex and highly uncertain,” Garber wrote. “Yet for us the most important decision is a clear one: Harvard will be open for fall 2020.”


Harvard is seeking to bring its students, faculty, staff, and postdoctoral fellows back on its brick and mortar Cambridge campus as soon as possible, but the university is indeed preparing for the possibility that much of, if not all of, the fall semester will need to happen remotely, according to Garber.

The approach will also likely mean that each of the university’s schools will offer their own, specific guidance regarding fall classes, activities, and programs, he wrote.

Even if the semester begins remotely, the university hopes to have folks back on campus as soon as possible as long as it is safe to do so, Garber said.

However, Garber stressed that remote learning next semester will be “notably different” than what students and faculty experienced this spring, as professors across the higher education spectrum scrambled to transition their curriculums to an online setting.

Faculty had less than two weeks to navigate last month’s transition, Garber said.

“With more time to prepare, we are confident we can create a better, more engaging experience for the fall should many of our activities need to be conducted remotely. Rather than seeking to approximate the on-campus experience online, we can focus our efforts on developing the best possible remote educational experience,” Garber wrote. “A successful shift in pedagogy of this magnitude will require tremendous creativity and dedication from our entire community. Efforts to that end are already underway.”


When Harvard will allow students, staff, and faculty to return to its Cambridge campus will depend on whether epidemiological data and public health models show “that most disease activity is behind us and that further waves of the outbreak are unlikely,” Garber wrote.

“If our community has not developed sufficient levels of immunity through recovery from the disease or vaccination, and if safe and effective antiviral therapy is not available, we will likely need adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, reliable and convenient viral testing, robust contact tracing procedures, and facilities for quarantine and isolation,” the letter says. “We must do our part to assure the health and safety of everyone within and beyond the Harvard community, particularly those at elevated risk. In the coming months we will learn more about whether these conditions can be met in time for the fall semester.”

Still, Garber, drawing on the university’s ability to innovate throughout its history, wrote that Harvard can create new approaches to remote education that will lay a blueprint for other institutions to follow.

“In its 384-year history, Harvard has overcome many adversities, drawing on the courage and determination of its community,” he wrote. “This extraordinary time calls on us to build on that history, working together in ways we never have before.”




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