FAS Fall 2020 Planning

At the end of May, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced that the FAS had launched an extensive scenario planning process to develop a range of potential options for how to safely bring students and scholarship back to campus. We are on track to make a final decision about fall plans by July. 

While the goal of returning to campus is simple, determining how best to achieve it is much more complicated. The members of the FAS Scenario Planning team, and the 11 working groups that support them, have been working tirelessly over the past several weeks to develop possible paths forward to adapt the pursuit of Harvard’s teaching and research mission to the changed circumstances of the fall and beyond.

It is important to acknowledge that graduate and undergraduate programs are confronting very different situations. Like Harvard’s professional schools, our graduate programs must find ways to adapt their program requirements, like coursework, teaching, and research, as well as mentoring and apprenticeship, to a pre- vaccine world. These adaptations must account for a host of complications and limitations, from visa and travel issues for international students to access to collections and laboratories without which academic progress for some is simply not possible. For undergraduates, we must confront these same issues and also add another big challenge—the context of a fully residential program where 98% of our students live together in dorms and Houses and participate in a broad range of extracurricular activities in addition to their courses of study. As a result, particular focus has been needed on the unique challenges posed by our residential undergraduate program and the differences among the pathways currently being considered are tied to this particular challenge.

Three possible pathways are currently under consideration for resuming residential operations. They include a path that starts the fall semester with a low-density campus, much like our current state of operations; a medium-density path that brings 30-40% of undergraduates back to campus; and one that begins with a quick return to a high-density campus that would welcome back all undergraduates for the fall semester, as described below. Importantly, all three pathways share the following common set of assumptions:

  • All pathways assume that regardless of where our students are living, whether on campus or at home, learning will continue to be remote next year, with only rare exceptions. The overwhelming reason for this decision is our commitment to protecting the academic enterprise and preserving academic continuity for all of our students. 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. We also recognize the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public health authorities.
  • All pathways assume a change to the academic calendar. While the two-semester system would be maintained, breaks during the semester would be removed to minimize travel in and out of the campus community during the term.
  • All pathways assume frequent testing of the campus community and changed campus norms that embrace new public health practices. Regardless of the pathway chosen, there is a recognition that our community norms will have to adapt in order for our public health practices to be successful. 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. We will each need to make these practices a regular part of how we contribute to the health and safety of our community.

Regardless of the path chosen, 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. We have already begun the phased process of resuming our research activities in our labs, libraries, and museums that incorporates changes to facilities and community expectations that are adapted to public health guidance. We are learning important lessons from this process about how to reduce the risks of community transmission while maintaining a vibrant and active research community. Practices piloted during the resumption of research—like the universal masking protocol and baseline testing needs—are helping us determine what is possible for our residential experience in the fall.  

Guiding Principles

  • Our highest priority is to support community health and well-being.

  • We will sustain the excellence of Harvard in both learning and research and will continue to hold ourselves to high standards.  

  • We will adopt an evidence-based risk management approach to the COVID-19 challenge, and our decisions will be guided by public officials and health experts. 

  • We will transparently communicate our policies and decision-making processes, and any evolution in these, acknowledging that we are facing considerable uncertainty. 

Pathways for Returning Students to Campus

Three possible pathways are currently under consideration for resuming residential operations, but there are some gating issues that will determine whether all three are viable choices. Harvard University Health Services is leading the development of a strategy to provide large-scale testing for the university community as a whole, which will require investment as well as an implementation strategy that meets the varied needs of all of Harvard’s Schools. Additionally, the University is leading the effort to acquire and distribute masks and other protective equipment that will be essential to carrying out the new public health practices these plans assume will be in place on campus. 

Pathway One: Minimal Density

Harvard College would continue to be largely remote, returning a minimal number of undergraduate students (~600) to live in residence on campus in fall 2020. 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 have the opportunity to return. This pathway was essentially piloted in the second half of the spring semester, following campus de-densification. It reflects a situation in which the risk of a severe, uncontrolled disease outbreak remains high and Harvard’s capacity for regular testing and tracing is limited. The pathway presents the lowest risk of infection and community spread. As the public health situation evolves and our understanding of how to safely operate in our changed circumstances advances, more students could potentially return for the spring semester, as described in Pathway 2.

Pathway Two: Moderate Density

Harvard College would return a moderate number of undergraduate students (~2,000-2,500 or roughly 40% of students) to live in residence on campus in fall 2020. Students described in Pathway 1, and one or two natural cohorts of students (i.e., first-year students, sophomores, juniors, or seniors) would have the opportunity to return. This pathway allows more students to be accommodated within the existing capacity of Harvard’s dorms and Houses, in line with the current density guidelines as outlined by public health officials, and with capacity retained for isolation needs. To be viable, this pathway requires that Harvard be able to execute moderate-volume, high-cadence testing capacity, delivering as many as 3,000 tests every two to three days that can be collected in sites across campus. This pathway presents a low risk of infection and community spread. Having a larger cohort of students on campus allows Harvard to pilot COVID-adapted, campus-based practices and programming. If successful and as the public health situation evolves, this pathway could potentially be scaled up, as described in Pathway 3, or if necessary, scaled down to Pathway 1.

Pathway Three: Full Density

All undergraduates students (~6,600) would have the opportunity to live in residence on campus in fall 2020, recognizing health concerns and travel and visa restrictions may prevent some students from being able to return. 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 distribution of students in on- and off-campus housing makes COVID-adapted community-building efforts challenging. To be viable, this pathway requires that Harvard be able to execute high-volume, high-cadence testing, delivering as many as 8,000 tests every two to three days that can be collected in sites across campus. This pathway presents the highest risk of infection and community spread. If unsuccessful and as the public health situation evolves, this pathway offers limited flexibility to scale down to Pathway 2 or 1, as described.

Working Groups

The leaders (listed below) of each working group comprise an executive committee, led by Dean Chris Stubbs and Mike Burke.

Decision Framework

Decision flow diagram and framework.
Leads: Christopher Stubbs, Dean of Science, Samuel C. Moncher Professor of Physics and of Astronomy; Mike Burke, FAS Registrar

Five-year Horizon

Consider five-year perspective, advise on longer-term impacts of AY 20-21 decisions. Provide a vision for where Harvard College is headed.
Lead: Maya Jasanoff, X.D. and Nancy Yang Professor of the Arts and Sciences, Coolidge Professor of History, Harvard College Professor

Financial Planning

Establish a framework for strategic financial planning. Evaluate fiscal impacts of AY 20-21 scenarios.
Lead: John Campbell, Morton L. and Carole S. Olshan Professor of Economics

Go for Fall

Identify conditions that would allow for the return of a substantial number of students to campus for Fall 2020, and advocate for that outcome.
Lead: Mike Burke, FAS Registrar

Restarting Scholarship

Determine process for staged return to on-campus scholarship.
Lead: Christopher Stubbs, Dean of Science, Samuel C. Moncher Professor of Physics and of Astronomy 

Houses and Facilities

Determine what we need to do in order to prepare undergraduate houses and other facilities for safe operation in a post-Covid-19 world.
Leads: L. Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Professor of Physics, Faculty Dean of Mather House; Zak Gingo, Associate Dean, Office of Physical Resources and Planning


Advise on interplay between offerings, deferrals, and related issues.
Lead: David Laibson, Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics, Faculty Dean of Lowell House


Consider how to best use both 12-month academic calendar and 24-hour classroom scheduling.
Leads: Jay Harris, Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies, Former Dean of Undergraduate Education; Erika McDonald, Associate FAS Registrar

Testing and Tracing

Advise on viral and serological testing, and contact tracing methods in coordination with the University
Leads: Latanya Sweeney, Professor of Government and Technology in Residence, the Director of the Data Privacy Lab in the Institute of Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, Faculty Dean in Currier House; Mark Fishman, Professor in the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and Chief of the Pathways Clinical Service at the Massachusetts General Hospital

Remote Experience AY20-21

Coordinate Harvard College efforts on preparing for the remote elements of AY 20-21, including both formal courses and extra-curricular aspects.
Lead: Amanda Claybaugh, Samuel Zemurray Jr. and Doris Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of English, Harvard College Professor, Dean of Undergraduate Education

Division of Continuing Education Coordination

Coordinate with DCE in planning for various scenarios and help leverage DCE’s experience in remote education.
Lead: Henry Leitner, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, DCE Chief Innovation Officer, Interim Dean of DCE