Minimal, Moderate, Full: Harvard Mulling Three Fall Scenarios for Undergraduate Campus Return, Dean Gay Writes


Harvard is considering three options for undergraduate living for the fall semester: maintaining the current low-density campus, housing 30 to 40 percent of College students, and bringing back all students, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote in an email to Harvard faculty, staff, and postdocs Monday afternoon.

No matter which scenario the University chooses, however, nearly all instruction will continue remotely, with only “rare” exceptions, Gay added.

Harvard still expects to make a decision by July, according to Gay. More than 100 University faculty and staff across 11 working groups are studying what fall semester will look like for Harvard students, administrators said during a town hall on the planning process June 3.

The first scenario, labeled “minimal density,” would look much like the second half of spring semester, with roughly 600 undergraduates returning to campus, according to a web update posted to the FAS fall planning website Monday.


Under this minimal density arrangement, only students who lack the “necessary conditions” for learning in their home environment, or require access to campus-based resources to maintain their “academic continuity,” would return to live on campus. More students could potentially return for the spring semester, as described in the University’s second proposed pathway.

The second scenario, dubbed “moderate density,” would welcome roughly 40 percent of undergraduates — between 2,000 and 2,500 students — to campus in fall 2020.

The pathway would allow one or two “natural cohorts” of students — freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors — to live in residence, as well as those who would return under the minimal density scenario.

For this scenario to be viable, Harvard must guarantee it can execute moderate-volume, high-cadence testing capacity, delivering up to 3,000 tests every two to three days that can be collected at sites across campus, according to the web update.

“This pathway presents a low risk of infection and community spread,” the update reads. “Having a larger cohort of students on campus allows Harvard to pilot COVID-adapted, campus-based practices and programming.”

The third scenario, “full density,” would bring all students back, require Harvard to conduct up to 8,000 tests every two to three days, and rely on significant off-campus housing stock.

“To adhere to the current density guidelines outlined by public health officials, this pathway requires supplemental housing beyond Harvard’s dorms and Houses, placing a large number of students (~30%) in local apartments and/or hotels,” the website description reads.

This scenario presents the “highest risk of infection and community spread” and “limited flexibility” to scale down to the other two scenarios, the website notes.

Gay wrote that all three options share a common set of assumptions: a continuation of online learning, a change to the academic calendar, and frequent on-campus testing.

“Continued remote instruction ensures that academic continuity for all students is maintained, even if travel restrictions, visa issues, or health considerations keep them away from campus,” Gay wrote. “We also recognize the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public health authorities.”

She added that while Harvard would maintain its two-semester system, it would remove breaks during the semester to minimize travel in and out of campus during the term.

Finally, she wrote that in all scenarios, affiliates should expect to undergo frequent testing on campus and adopt changed campus norms in line with new public health practices.

“Regardless of the pathway chosen, there is a recognition that our community norms will have to adapt for our public health practices to be successful,” she wrote. “The greater Boston area remains a hot spot for the virus, and social-distancing, masking, and other public health practices will be a part of campus life for the foreseeable future.”

During the June 3 College town hall, Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh said administrators are working on supporting international students by adapting course schedules to mitigate time zone differences and monitoring visa restrictions. Claybaugh leads a working group dedicated to determining how to best approach another semester of online education.

Should courses continue online, some College students have said they would consider taking a leave of absence next semester. However, they said their decision was contingent upon whether the College would change its leave of absence policies, such as withholding financial aid or forcing students to take multiple semesters off.

During the town hall, Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair said the College will not change its current “liberal” policy, which allows students to take time off if they choose, but does not guarantee students Harvard housing upon their return.

Claybaugh said that the College will return to a standard grading system this fall, setting aside the Emergency Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory system it piloted in the spring.

Gay wrote on Monday that Harvard has already learned lessons about reducing the risks of community transmission while resuming research activities in labs, libraries, and museums.

“Regardless of the path we choose, some members of our community will return to campus this fall, and the campus they return to will not be the one they left in the spring,” Gay wrote.

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

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