A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Fellows,

I hope you are all well and safe, despite the many challenges in the world. The pandemic and other public problems have turned many people’s worlds upside down this year, and my heart goes out to those who are bearing the brunt of these problems. However, I am so appreciative of the resilience you have shown in learning and working remotely, and I hope you are proud of what you have accomplished.

In developing plans for the Spring semester, our goal has been to bring students back to campus as much as possible while protecting the health of the Kennedy School and Harvard community and doing our part to help protect the health of the Greater Boston community.

In the Spring semester, we plan to offer a small number of in-person classes for a limited number of students, and we plan to let all interested students spend modest amounts of time studying and interacting on campus apart from classes.

However, there are crucial caveats: Most classes will continue to occur remotely. Moreover, we may need to shift the planned in-person classes to a remote basis and to cancel or reduce other planned campus access if health conditions worsen at the Kennedy School or in the Boston area.

The fine print about these plans is important, so please keep reading …


Because of your skill and dedication, we have continued to advance the mission of the Kennedy School this Fall. But I greatly miss our being together in person, and I know you miss that, too.

Therefore, many faculty, staff, and students have worked over the past few months to consider ways for people to come on campus to the extent possible while protecting everyone’s health. These efforts have included surveys, focus groups, and meetings of members of the Kennedy School community, consultations with health experts, learnings from other schools inside and outside Harvard, and more. We are all grateful for this creative, considerate, and effective work.

Health considerations remain a paramount concern: Cases of COVID-19 are increasing rapidly in many parts of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere; the onset of colder weather in the Northern Hemisphere is raising the chances of transmission; and there is little prospect that significant numbers of people can be vaccinated before the Spring. At the same time, mask usage, physical distancing, hand washing, high-cadence testing, and isolation and quarantine for positive cases and their contacts have been effective so far on many campuses in containing the virus’s spread.

As you know, the risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 varies across people, as do responses to that risk. In addition, reductions of in-person hours at schools and childcare facilities have forced some people to take on significant new responsibilities. Our plans for the Spring semester need to respect the variation in risk and circumstances among our colleagues and those they care for. In addition, the path of the pandemic in coming months is hugely uncertain, and our plans need to be flexible so that we can respond nimbly to improving or worsening health conditions.

At this point, some students and faculty think we should aim to return fully to in-person classes for the Spring, while many others think we should keep teaching and learning fully remotely. We have seen this Fall that different schools inside and outside Harvard have adopted different ways of dealing with a mix of views in their own communities, reflecting differences in their curricula, pedagogical approaches, facilities, and other characteristics. Many schools are holding fully remote classes and focusing on maximizing the effectiveness of that approach, while many other schools are offering various hybrids of remote and in-person classes. Our plans for the Kennedy School reflect our own situation as well as the public health context.

Teaching and Learning

In the Spring semester we plan to pursue a “targeted-hybrid” approach, in which a limited number of students will be able to take a small number of courses with substantial in-person elements. We plan to reserve access to those class slots for students from outside the United States who do not currently hold visas and who choose to come to campus—responding to concerns expressed by many of our non-U.S. students, and also by many of our U.S. students on behalf of their friends and colleagues from other countries. I offer additional details beginning a few paragraphs down.

For other students, unfortunately, we cannot commit to offering in-person classes at this point. We will give those students priority access to campus outside of classes (which I address below), and we will continue to look for safe and feasible ways to increase in-person learning.

Still, students who do not want to enroll given these plans—and given the risk that the plans will need to be rolled back if health conditions worsen—can take a leave of absence at the end of the Fall semester. Students who choose to do so can return in the Spring of 2022 and can carry forward any financial aid awarded by the Kennedy School until then.

Here is how our planned targeted-hybrid approach is structured (with more specifics available soon from the degree-program directors):

  • For first-year MPP students, there will be two options for the core courses: a “fully remote” option, in which all class sessions will be online, available to all students; and a “combined remote and in-person” option, in which at least half of class sessions and related learning will be in-person, available only to non-U.S. students who do not yet hold visas (and who will need to obtain visas to enter the country). Course instructors will adopt specific structures for in-person activities that best fit the characteristics of their courses. In addition, first-year MPP students taking in-person classes can take elective courses online, one of which can count toward graduation requirements.
  • For first-year MPA-ID students, the two options described for MPP students will apply to at least three of the core courses.
  • For MC-MPA students and first-year students in the two-year MPA program, we will offer three specific courses—again, only to non-U.S. students who do not presently hold visas but are able to obtain them for the Spring term—in which at least half of the class sessions will be in-person: a course on policy analysis; a course on current topics in public policy; and a course on leadership, negotiation, and persuasion with a particular focus on one of the key challenges of our time, the environment. Students seeking visas to enter the United States in the Spring term will need to take all three of these courses and can take elective courses online, one of which can count toward graduation requirements. (We will work with students to make sure that everyone who takes these three courses can meet their distribution requirements.) Of course, MC-MPA students and first-year students in the two-year MPA program can, instead, continue to study completely online and choose from the full complement of elective offerings. 

Our understanding is that the hybrid course schedules just described meet the in-person study requirements in the U.S. federal regulations that govern F-1 and J-1 visas for students who do not yet have them. However, visa issuance and admission into the United States are not under the control of the University, and the risks of visa noncompliance are borne primarily by the individual applicants. Moreover, some aspects of current visa rules are scheduled to expire on December 31, and visa rules may be subject to differing interpretations by different immigration officers, including USCIS officers reviewing applications for work allowances, H-1B visas, and green cards after graduation. Please contact the Harvard International Office with any questions about your individual circumstances.

The Kennedy School’s executive education program will remain fully remote through the Spring semester. Our faculty and staff have worked hard and creatively to reinvent our executive education courses for online delivery, and we have been pleased by the very positive reception to these new courses among the participants.

I want to emphasize that the planned in-person elements of degree-program courses might need to be converted to remote elements if health conditions on campus or in the Boston area deteriorate—and the federal government has not stated how such conversion might affect students’ visa status.

Student Access to Campus

In the Spring semester we plan to let all interested students spend modest amounts of time studying and interacting on campus outside of classes. Of course, we would prefer to have students on campus for long time periods, but our campus is designed and scaled for dense throngs of people, and such density is not safe now. In addition, protecting everyone’s health will require all of us who come to campus to follow crucial protocols and restrictions, which we will spell out soon in a “community compact.”

The amounts of time that we can allow students to be on campus will depend on various factors for which we do not have full information yet: how many students will want to be on campus; how many students will enroll in the in-person classes described above; how many faculty, staff, and fellows will also have compelling reasons to be on campus; and what the health conditions on campus and in the Boston area will be. Indeed, as conditions evolve, the number of allowed hours may well increase or decrease over the course of the semester. However, we hope that each interested student will be able to spend one day per week on campus (during regular work hours), or more if conditions allow. In scheduling access, we will give priority to students who are not taking in-person courses.

Everyone who comes to campus will need to agree in advance to the HKS Community Compact referenced above. The health protocols in the compact will include mask wearing at all times, physical distancing, careful handwashing and sanitation, travel guidance, limits on group activities, regular testing, and willingness to participate in tracing, isolation, and quarantine in case of positive test results. In addition, the compact will include a willingness to restrict one’s activities on campus to designated times and locations for which one would sign up in advance. Anyone who does not comply fully with the compact may lose their opportunity to be on campus.

We will be running a pilot of student access to campus next month. Details will be forthcoming shortly.

Despite this plan for increasing student access to campus, most informal interactions among students and between students and faculty will continue to occur online. Our colleagues in Degree Programs and Student Affairs will keep working with students to develop better approaches for online interactions among students, and our faculty members will keep pursuing online interactions with students outside of official class sessions as well. We also recognize that increased screen time cannot always be the answer, so we will continue to explore creative ways to make connections.

I want to emphasize that the planned access to campus might need to be cancelled or reduced if health conditions on campus or in the Boston area deteriorate—or if people do not comply with the required health protocols.

Faculty, Staff, and Fellows

Since the shutdown of the campus in March, some of our colleagues have been coming in every day to maintain and secure our facilities and to provide essential services. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their dedication, and their work on campus will continue.

Our Spring plans for limited in-person class sessions and campus access will require additional members of our staff and faculty to work on campus. Many of our colleagues have explained that they are eager to carry forward the work of the Kennedy School but are worried about coming to campus because of concerns about their own health and the health of family members (especially if they have existing health challenges or commute via public transportation) and childcare responsibilities (with many schools and childcare centers at least partly closed). I deeply respect those concerns.

Accordingly, the plans outlined above depend only on small numbers of additional faculty and staff being on campus. Our thinking is informed by the health protocols that have been followed in Harvard College and elsewhere at the University this Fall, which have led, so far, to very few instances of positive tests (see the University’s dashboard). Therefore, I am hopeful that those few faculty and staff members who come to campus this Spring to sustain the activities I have described will feel comfortable doing so. Strict adherence to the HKS Community Compact by all of us who come to campus will help to protect not just those on campus, but all of the people we live with and interact with off-campus.

Other staff members, faculty members, and fellows will continue to work from home for the Spring semester. These colleagues will continue to be eligible—pending approval by their managers, faculty members, or administrators, as appropriate—to voluntarily come to campus for modest periods of time. The amount of time will depend on the factors I described above for students, as well as on agreement with the Community Compact and compliance with it.


I am excited about these important steps we are planning toward an eventual full return to campus, and I hope we can take more steps forward in the months ahead. But I want to emphasize, one more time, that we may need to shift the planned in-person classes to a remote basis and cancel other planned campus access if health conditions worsen at the Kennedy School or in the Boston area. I hope everyone understands that, as long as the pandemic continues, there are tradeoffs between the objectives we share, and no plans could accomplish everything we want.

I want to reiterate my appreciation for the remarkable work you have been doing this year. With an array of public challenges facing the world, the Kennedy School’s mission to improve public policy and public leadership has never been more important. And as I look at our faculty, staff, students, fellows, alumni, and friends, I firmly believe that our capability for advancing that mission has never been greater. Let us proceed together.

With best wishes,