A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

Dear HKS Students, Staff, and Faculty,

Happy new year. I hope you are healthy and safe, and that, despite the many challenges we are facing, you had time to rest and reconnect with your loved ones during the break.

In the message you received a few minutes ago, the University’s leaders summarize current public-health conditions and their current thinking about the Spring semester. I am writing now to offer some further thoughts about the situation at the Kennedy School.

We explained in October that our goal for the Spring semester was to bring limited numbers of students back to campus in targeted ways that would still protect the health of the Kennedy School and Harvard community and do our part to help protect the health of the Greater Boston community. As we considered options then, we expected that conditions regarding COVID would continue to evolve rapidly, so we designed plans that were flexible, and we recognized that we might need to make adjustments. Indeed, public-health conditions have worsened in the Boston area since we announced those plans, which clearly is concerning.

Nevertheless, at this time, we still think we can protect the health and safety of the Kennedy School community while offering a small number of in-person classes for a limited number of students, as we laid out in October. Here’s why:

As the message from the University’s leaders says: “Through the community’s adherence to physical distancing, mask usage, handwashing, frequent testing, daily Crimson Clear attestations, and other public health measures, we have largely avoided disease transmission on campus.” Among the members of the Harvard community who have taken COVID tests at Harvard, a fairly small number have tested positive (as of yesterday, 63 out of more than 10,000), and nearly all of those positive cases appear to have been acquired off-campus. There seems to have been little to no transmission of the virus in Harvard College dormitories or Business School classrooms, where University-specified health protocols and physical changes are in place. That situation is consistent with patterns at other colleges and universities that have practiced similar measures.

Therefore, all members of the Kennedy School community—students, faculty, staff, and fellows—who come to campus during the Spring semester will need to agree formally to the health protocols and other aspects of our new Community Compact and will need to abide strictly by that Compact or risk losing access to campus. The Compact includes protocols for behavior off-campus, which—to emphasize—represents the greatest risk to members of the Kennedy School community.

In addition, our colleagues in Campus Planning and Operations have worked hard to change physical arrangements of chairs and tables to help ensure appropriate distancing, to enable air handling within our classrooms and throughout our buildings that complies with established standards for minimizing infectious particles in the air, and much more. We plan to post photos shortly on the School’s website so you can get a sense of the visible changes.

In addition to the small number of in-person classes, we are also still planning to allow other interested students to spend modest amounts of time studying on campus apart from classes, although that access will begin only after we have launched the in-person classes successfully.

As we have noted previously, some of our faculty and staff members will be on campus to do or support our teaching and to support our students; those faculty and staff members have been notified and are working through details with their managers. Other faculty and staff members will generally continue to work remotely. I am immensely grateful for the efforts of all of the staff and faculty members who have developed ways for us to gradually return to campus safely.

As I stressed in my message in October, we will continue to monitor and adjust these plans if health conditions worsen at the Kennedy School or in the Boston area—and we may do so with no warning.

Moreover, our decisions may differ from those of other Harvard schools because the circumstances of the schools are very different. For instance, the College plans to again bring undergraduate students back to dormitories but to hold all classes online; many Business School students will be living on campus again and attending a hybrid of in-class and remote learning; and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is continuing to allow students into labs and libraries but with new restrictions. What is best for these schools and for the Kennedy School may well be different, even though we are in close communication with each other and are relying on the same medical and epidemiological analysis by the University’s experts and outside experts. 

We will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our community. Although no single indicator will determine our course of action, we and others around the University are closely watching state and local regulations; the 7-day positivity rates for COVID testing at Harvard, at other colleges and universities, and in surrounding communities; and hospitalizations from COVID and available hospital capacities. Moreover, we will continue to monitor conditions at the Kennedy School. Each of us can help to minimize the chance of rollbacks in our plans and can help to protect others in the Boston area by adhering to the Community Compact. Let us show our commitment to public service and to each other by doing so.

Best wishes,