Members of the Class of 2024 sent an open letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow Thursday urging Harvard to postpone its fall semester rather than holding classes entirely online if the coronavirus pandemic precludes in-person classes.
The letter argues an online semester would create disadvantages for first-generation and low-income students, contribute negatively to students’ mental health, and make adjusting to college-level coursework difficult for the incoming class.
“As first-year students, we have yet to establish meaningful in-person relationships with classmates, faculty, advisors, and other mentors who will facilitate the transition to Harvard,” the letter reads.
“We fear that beginning instruction online would exacerbate inequalities existing among members of our class and may have long-lasting effects. In contrast, Harvard’s on-campus resources help level the playing field, allowing all students to fully engage in the learning process,” it adds.
At the time of the open letter’s submission to President Bacow, 271 students identified as prospective members of the Class of 2024 — along with 84 who signed on as current College students — had added their names to the petition.
Kendall I. Shields, a prospective member of the Class of 2024 who organized the effort behind the open letter, said she and other prospective members of her class first became interested in reaching out to President Bacow after connecting through a Class of 2024 GroupMe.
“I think the initial interest in postponing the semester was really just because, obviously, none of us want to miss out on the freshman experience. But as you begin to delve deeper into the different issues, you realize that there are actually a lot of complications with having an online semester, particularly for freshmen,” Shields said.
Angela Dela Cruz, another potential incoming freshman who contributed to the letter, said the process of drafting the open letter presented challenges as the admitted students attempted to work together to set the correct tone and present compelling points.
“We did not want the letter to be too long, and we wanted to make our message as clear and concise as possible,” she said. “There was also the other problem of making sure that the wording was more positively connotated rather than negatively connotated.”
Laila A. Nasher, another admitted student, said she felt it was important to voice her opinion as a low-income student.
“There's obviously going to be things about Harvard's freshman experience that we'll all miss. But we're willing to sacrifice those luxuries,” Nasher said. “It’d be especially tough on low-income students, especially people who don't really come from stable home environments, live with a large family where everyone is talking, live in unsafe environments, and don't have stable internet connection or access to technology.”
“Even right now, doing online school is extremely tough for me, and I can only imagine what it would be like if I was doing Harvard online,” she added.
The open letter also encourages administrators to be especially mindful of University employees as they make decisions about the fall semester.
“We hope that, regardless of what academic schedule is ultimately chosen, the administration takes measures to continue prioritizing the financial security of its faculty and staff,” the open letter states.
Ryan D. Nguyen, another prospective student, said he valued the opportunity to voice his opinion in itself, regardless of the effort’s outcome.
“To the Harvard community at large, even if our letter doesn’t enact any change, we’re just grateful to be heard and grateful that Harvard is a place that you can voice your opinion without repercussions,” Nguyen said. “That's something that I've always looked forward to — being able to speak out and have a voice.”
The letter concludes by noting the students “trust that Harvard’s administration will act in our best interests,” and that they will support whatever final decision administrators make about the fall semester.
Shields, however, added she ultimately hopes that President Bacow heeds the open letter and fully considers the opinions of some of the College’s newest students.
“I do think that he should really value our perspective, because we are the future of Harvard, and we are part of the members of the community,” she said.
—Staff writer Benjamin L. Fu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenFu_2.