Campus & Community

Q&A on Harvard’s move to online learning

6 min read

Officials detail University’s battle plan to combat coronavirus while education continues

Harvard University announced earlier this morning that it would suspend in-person classes and shift to online learning where possible, with the goal of limiting the spread of coronavirus in the community. The Gazette spoke with Provost Alan Garber, Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, and University Health Services Executive Director Giang Nguyen to learn more about the planning, as well as the rationale behind the decision to adopt virtual instruction across Harvard.


Alan Garber, Katie Lapp, and Giang Nguyen

GAZETTE: What are the critical details that community members should know regarding the decision to suspend in-person classes?

ALAN GARBER: The close physical proximity that promotes social interaction in classrooms, dining halls, Houses, and dorms becomes a liability when our community is threatened by a serious contagious disease. Traditional approaches to social distancing to prevent the spread of epidemics usually include elementary and secondary school closure. Today, learning is less dependent on physical proximity than ever before. As part of our efforts to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, Harvard will provide virtual instruction for as many courses as possible by Monday, March 23, the first day of scheduled classes following spring break. The shift to remote teaching makes it possible to continue learning without the sustained face-to-face contact that is inherent in residential education.

With the shift of classes across Harvard’s Schools to online platforms, we are encouraging students not to return to campus immediately following spring break. We will ensure that all students are able to meet their academic requirements remotely. We recognize that leaving campus may not be a suitable option for some students. Schools will work with University officials to determine exceptions and to make appropriate and safe accommodations for them.

In addition, we have updated our guidance on nonessential meetings or events to strongly discourage any gathering of 25 people or more. All international travel on University business is prohibited, as is University-related, nonessential domestic air travel.

Giang Nguyen, Katie Lapp and Alan Garber

Health Services Executive Director Giang Nguyen (from left), Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, and Provost Alan Garber discuss decision to adopt virtual instruction.

Harvard file photos

GAZETTE: How did the University come to this decision?

KATIE LAPP: As I mentioned last week, we’ve been engaged in University-wide contingency planning since the initial reports of cases of coronavirus arising in Wuhan, China. Groups across campus have been meeting several times per day to discuss everything from the global impacts of the virus to our readiness to respond here at Harvard.

The University came to this decision to move to virtual instruction following significant discussion and planning, and it is rooted in the advice of health leaders and experts at Harvard, and from international, federal, state, and local authorities, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Massachusetts Department of Health.

GAZETTE: Can you talk a little more about the public health guidance regarding this move to virtual instruction?

GIANG NGUYEN: The University’s decision is based on the public health concept of social distancing, which applies a variety of techniques to limit the spread of illness from person to person. This approach bears in mind the safety of all our community members. Science shows that reducing the concentration of people in an area can lower the infection risk for everyone involved.

The number of confirmed cases has been increasing worldwide and here in the U.S., and we expect that to continue. This is a new disease, and we are learning more every day about how it is transmitted, and how it affects those who have the virus. The most current information, though, is clear: Effective quarantine and self-isolation of those who may have been exposed to coronavirus or infected, as well as widespread social distancing, will be critically important if we are to limit the spread the disease. Folks should remember that social distancing also means handwashing (especially after touching things that other people may have touched), avoiding group gatherings, and keeping your distance in general, to about 6 feet.

GAZETTE: This move to virtual instruction doesn’t explicitly affect the work and schedules of many staff members here at Harvard. What should these individuals know about this decision?

LAPP: The health and well-being of our entire community — students, faculty, and staff — is our priority. We are grateful for the ongoing work of faculty and staff as the University remains open and operational. Without these unprecedented efforts, we would not be able to make the necessary transition to remote classes, and to keeping the University up and running.

The extent of the outbreak is changing daily, and we are prepared to transition to scenarios for partial operations and minimal operations, should the situation warrant it. Over the past few weeks, we have asked staff to begin preparing for remote work. Those preparations should continue in earnest. We are asking supervisors to allow for flexibility, particularly for those individuals who may be at a higher risk of complications from the virus, or who care for dependents at higher risk. We ask you to continue to practice good hygiene, and to stay home when sick. There are many issues that will arise that we will not have immediate answers for, but we are hard at work trying to anticipate all of them. We ask all members of our community to be patient as we work through issues and logistics related to this situation.

GARBER: Ultimately, these measures will only be successful if we as a community comply with them. In the end, the decisions you make will influence the likelihood that you will be exposed to the virus, and that you will unknowingly pass it on. And while you may experience only a mild illness if you become infected, the people you infect — especially if they are older, have a weakened immune system, or a chronic disease — could become much sicker. Thank you in advance for your cooperation in covering your mouth and nose before coughing or sneezing, in washing your hands, and in maintaining your distance from others.

We’ll continue to keep everyone in the community informed and updated. For the latest information, please visit

Since the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, the Gazette has been providing regular updates from Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines. You can find these updates here: