‘Few Parallels in Our History’: Harvard Schools Outline Coronavirus Contingency Plans


Administrators from across Harvard’s 12 degree-granting schools and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study sent school-specific instructions and reassurances to students Tuesday following University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s announcement that Harvard would move to remote instruction beginning March 23 as a result of the growing coronavirus outbreak.

Bacow’s announcement, which also stipulated that students not return to campus after spring break whenever possible, came just days after Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael P. Burke announced stricter travel restrictions related to coronavirus.

Many of the announcements — which contained directions for graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff — addressed issues pertaining to transitions to virtual classes, restrictions on public events, and continuity of research and academic activities, among other issues.

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and Executive Dean for Administration Angela Q. Crispi wrote in a Business School-wide announcement that Harvard's sudden transition to online classes is “a shift with few parallels in our history.”


“The last time we had to pivot our operations so significantly was in the 1940s, against the backdrop of World War II, when the School's campus (and that of the University) was turned over to military training,” they wrote in the email.

Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams wrote in an email to School of Public Health affiliates that the novel coronavirus could pose one of the “biggest public health challenges we face in our lifetimes.”

Top schools administrators — including those from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard College, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard School Of Engineering And Applied Sciences, Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Extension School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and the Radcliffe Institute — sent similar announcements on their respective schools’ response.

The Graduate School of Education did not respond to requests for comment on whether administrators sent similar messages to its affiliates.

While Bacow’s message encouraged the general student population to remain home after spring break, Harvard Medical School administrators wrote in an email to Medical School affiliates that the school plans to “proceed with clinical activities” and that its students should “plan to return to campus following their breaks.”

“Given that portions of the HMS learning environment are largely hands-on and that medical students need to complete rotations and patient exams to meet graduation requirements, we plan to proceed with clinical activities and will work with our affiliated hospitals to employ heightened protocols aimed at ensuring the safety of students, patients, staff and faculty,” Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 and Executive Dean for Administration Lisa M. Muto ’79 wrote.

Daley and Muto added that extra cleaning and precautions would be implemented and the decision could be revisited “should the current situation escalate.”

FAS Dean Claudine Gay wrote in an email to faculty that the school is entering “somewhat uncharted territory.”

“I want to acknowledge that this is a lot to take on,” she wrote. “It can be overwhelming, frustrating, and anxiety-producing to have to shift gears so dramatically in the middle of the semester, and finding a way to be creative in a situation of considerable pressure is difficult to say the least. I want you to know that you have a community of people ready to support you in this, and that includes me.”

Gay added that students will be looking to the faculty for support during transition as they confront “uncertainty, but likely also disappointment to be leaving campus.”

“Your care, compassion, and sense of confidence that we can reach solutions to the challenges intrinsic in this transition are perhaps the most powerful tools we have in this moment,” Gay wrote. “Give yourself a moment to prepare how you will lead in your research group, class, program, and department.”

“There is still a lot we do not know, and we will not get everything right as we work quickly to shift operations,” she added.

Gay also noted in her email that faculty could postpone midterms, and that future FAS Faculty Council and Faculty Meetings would be held virtually.

Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Emma Dench wrote that her school is working to develop “guidelines for lab research.”

Dench also noted that graduate students who live in undergraduate housing as proctors or tutors would not be required to move.

Divinity School Dean of Faculty David N. Hempton wrote in an emailed announcement to faculty that the campus would not close its campus despite classes moving online.

“The HDS campus is open to students, faculty, and staff, including the library,” Hempton wrote. “I ask that when you are on campus you practice appropriate social distancing with a minimum distance of 6 feet and maintain procedures to prevent the spread of this respiratory disease.”

Dean of the Graduate School of Design Sarah M. Whiting wrote in an email to Design School affiliates that courses in her school would have to transition away from dependence on model fabrication. Whiting wrote that Design School buildings would be locked to everyone but essential staff and students who complete a petition process — a policy which differs from other schools, where buildings will remain open.

“Transitioning an institution the size of the GSD—especially one whose curriculum is structured around collaboration, meetings, 1:1 instruction, and physical fabrication—is no small task,” Whiting wrote.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

—Staff writer Ruoqi Zhang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RuoqiZhang3.