What’s the first thing you do when someone contracts an infectious disease?
In fall 2020, Harvard included in their back-to-campus plan a guarantee of quarantine housing for students testing positive. The system worked; transmission rates were lower than planned, which allowed the administration to choose the most student-dense of their potential spring strategies, renewing the quarantine policy in the meanwhile.
Upon return to full undergraduate living density in fall 2021, the established isolation policy remained in place. However, with much of Harvard’s swing housing being used to house the unprecedented 1,965-student Class of 2025, this plan now had a potential failure case — an unmanageable number of cases, and thus zero available beds. Luckily, this didn’t happen; transmission remained low for almost the entire three months.
In December, though, the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant raised the possibility of a major outbreak upon return to campus for the spring. In response, the college made a new plan, eliminating isolation housing and instead deciding that infected students would quarantine in their rooms. Direct roommates, but not suitemates, could apply for limited alternate living spaces.
There was concern, but the policy seemed defensible; the new variant was less dangerous despite being more transmissible, and the potential of keeping thousands of students in isolation seemed unfeasible.
A month or so into the spring semester, the crisis appeared averted; positivity rates were still low. But at the end of February, cases started to spike. The week before spring break, parties were canceled, teachers gave warnings, and the College released new, stricter guidelines for social events and increased testing. Omicron, it seemed, had finally hit.
Administrators were quick to blame undergraduates. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana placed the onus on “individual behavior,” offering patronizing guidance to continue being “conscious about masking.” But the mask policy hadn’t changed. And if individual behavior was to blame, why now? Students’ social habits don't change much from semester to semester. Why a sudden surge, in the middle of a local and national lull in cases?
The answer is clear. Harvard’s flawed isolation protocols — forgotten when Omicron fizzled — came around and hit us when we weren’t looking. As students tested positive, the virus was allowed to circulate instead of being removed from communities. Slowly but surely, even without high levels of transmission, an insidious wave built, crashing a month into the semester — a crash that was entirely Harvard’s fault.
Other colleges still guarantee isolation housing — or, at the very least, housing for roommates of students who test positive for Covid-19. But Harvard doesn’t even make it clear how likely it is that roommates get housing, much less offer it to infected students themselves. And the alternative housing offered isn’t appealing. The request form is difficult to find, and is filled with strict conditions: among other things, a student is not provided with amenities, must eat grab-and-go meals, and must return to their room if they test positive — a policy that contradicts every visceral instinct of pandemic prevention.
Moreover, the application reads as if it’s trying to discourage students from applying, with an open-response question asking for “as much information as possible” about the student’s circumstances, because housing “is extremely scarce.” Even after being accepted, many students had negative experiences with alternative housing, having had to deal with poorly managed security and remarking that it felt unfair that they, and not their Covid-19 positive roommates, had to go through the hassle of moving.
Many students thus decided to forgo the form, being willing to take the risk of living with someone who had tested positive despite the potential to spread the virus through the student population. In fact, when my roommate tested positive in late March, I chose a third bad option. I had extracurricular commitments that I couldn’t risk missing due to quarantine, and I didn’t trust that I’d get alternative housing, so I slept in the basements of freshman dormitories for a week. Hey, at least I didn’t catch Covid-19.
Now, luckily, the mid-semester surge seems to have died down. But it would be beyond stupid to bet against another peak, and when it comes, Harvard’s current policy will fail miserably. A new, dangerous variant could arise, and even though most people at Harvard are vaccinated, many are still vulnerable, including the elderly and immunocompromised.
What, then, should Harvard do? A return to isolation housing would be a start, although it would be nice if the administration could provide better support to those in quarantine. The scenario in which the entire school gets Covid-19 at the same time and overwhelms the beds available seems unlikely; even with Omicron, case numbers didn’t skyrocket. And if they did? Harvard’s $53 billion endowment has more than enough leeway for a few extra buildings’ worth of hotel space.
At the end of the day, the students in quarantine should be the ones who have the virus. And as much as Harvard shifts the blame to undergraduates, they caused their own outbreak with their callous, short-sighted alternative housing policy. They know the right strategy to control Covid-19, because they used it for a year and a half. It’s due time for it to return.
There will be another wave. Let’s not make it worse than it has to be.
Ian D. Svetkey ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.