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College Confident in Students’ Ability to Stay Safe for Fall Term, O’Dair Says

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Administrators in the Dean of Students Office are optimistic that undergraduates living on campus will finish the semester safely, Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair said in an interview Wednesday.

O’Dair said she is confident that freshmen — the majority of whom reside on campus, along with select upperclassmen — will continue to heed campus policies regarding the coronavirus during the next two and a half months. She added that the possibility of bringing back seniors in the spring gives weight to that responsibility, though she acknowledged that Harvard has yet to make definite plans for the spring semester.

When the University announced that freshmen would form the majority of students returning for the fall, administrators said that — public health permitting – it would welcome seniors in the spring.

“We need for this to be a shared responsibility, and I think we have created an environment where students have done an excellent job of understanding their role in all this,” O’Dair said Wednesday. “In particular, for first year students to know that the work they're doing well hopefully bring back seniors and other students in the spring.”

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As of Thursday, just nine of the 21,669 coronavirus tests Harvard has conducted on undergraduates returned positive results. Undergraduates living in residence get tested three times each week. The University also announced on Monday that roughly 500 students living near campus will be able to avail themselves of University testing through Nov. 22.

O’Dair also addressed a Sept. 10 email she sent to students on campus, where she issued a stern reminder about both residential social distancing guidelines and the consequences of flouting them. The email followed reports of large student gatherings by the Charles River near some of the Houses — a clear violation of social distancing policy set out in the Community Compact.

In the interview, she described the email as “proactive” rather than reactive, and added that she believes students are doing well in abiding by the College’s policies.

“I sent that message really in a general way, because it’s always a good reminder early on, especially to be vigilant about it in this time,” she said. “It was just another reminder that, for large gatherings, there is a higher risk to people who attend. Large gatherings lead to transmission.”

Restrictions on student gatherings are just one tenet of the community compact, a list of residential guidelines students living on campus agreed to follow. As of Sept. 9, the College permitted outdoor gatherings of ten or fewer participants but continues to bar indoor gatherings.

Other restrictions limit the number of students occupying dorm rooms and render common spaces like dining halls and communal study spaces defunct. O’Dair explained that as the semester progresses — and the weather turns colder — students on campus can expect to see more “study space” opening up.

“We worked all summer with many constituents across campus with our colleagues in health services for guidance on public health,” O’Dair said. “We worked with facility staff and all of our residential staff to think about their roles. Our housing office did a great job of thinking through capacities and what sort of housing students should be in and developing the community compact.”

O’Dair added that she recognizes that Harvard’s campus return plan is “conservative.” She said campus life will continue to follow that “cautious and conservative” approach.

DSO administrators also reflected on how the fall setup took shape. That process — which began to take shape in late spring — involved coordination between the DSO and various parts of the University to develop housing plans and the Community Compact, according to O’Dair.

“We were working with facilities staff and were working with all of our residential staff to think about roles,” she said. “We’ve worked with our housing office, which did a great job of thinking through capacities and what sort of housing students should be in and can be in.

Associate Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt ’01 added that the reimagining of the residential system this semester was a “joint community effort” that revolved around being “welcoming” to students both on and off campus.

“To have students be able to come back I think was something we really did value. We successfully moved everyone in residence, we have people who are attending classes and being able to engage in the academic environment, and have the support they need,” Brandt said.

“But I think it's also thinking about how we welcome the students who are learning from afar and learning remotely, and making sure that they're part of the conversation as much as we can," she added.

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at sydnie.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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