An early September Covid-19 surge led to “nail-biting” moments for administrators, but Harvard has dodged “severe” cases of Covid-19 among vaccinated students this semester, University officials said during a faculty meeting Tuesday.
In May, administrators announced that Harvard would return to “normal housing density” and full in-person instruction in the fall. At the same time, the University mandated Covid-19 vaccinations to return to campus housing, barring medical or religious exemptions.
Nonetheless, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said University health officials were “thrown some curveballs” in planning for a safe return for students, such as the Delta variant and its effect on unvaccinated students.
“If you were to ask me what the biggest concern I had was: ‘Could we prevent an outbreak that might force us to shut down campus?’” Garber said. “There were some nail-biting moments, particularly around Labor Day.”
Currently, 96 percent of University employees and 95 percent of students are vaccinated, while the seven-day positivity rate has remained under 0.2 percent the entire semester, Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen said. No vaccinated students who have contracted the virus have required ICU or ventilator usage this semester.
Despite falling case numbers in recent weeks, Nguyen said Harvard officials are not “ready to say we’re ready to get back to normal yet.”
Garber said “no single factor” will determine when Harvard operations can fully return to normal, including more travel and conferences. Though experts predict the virus will eventually become endemic like the flu, Harvard will have to consider when the “rate of serious long Covid is low enough” to fully reopen, he said.
“I’m not ready to say we are going to be [back to normal] by January, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” Garber said.
The University is also considering the fact that some affiliates are now eligible for a Covid-19 booster dose, he said, noting that preliminary research has found “the coverage against new variants is extremely good” for those who receive booster shots.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Garber also provided an update on negotiations with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers. Last week, roughly 92 percent of HGSU-UAW members voted to authorize a strike after nearly six months of contract negotiations with the administration.
On economic issues, the greatest disagreement lies in “direct compensation and salary.”
“A gap remains to be sure, but the University has offered $14 million in new economic concessions over the next three years,” Garber said.
Garber said two sides were “far apart” on non-economic issues, including union security, third-party arbitration for academic retaliation, and “the broad series of issues concerning non-discrimination, harassment, and intimidation.”
Garber said previous negotiations with HGSU-UAW led to schools developing “policies and procedures for student accusations of academic retaliation.” He said, however, that the administration opposes the union’s demands for third-party arbitration in those cases, arguing that arbitrators are “not in a place” to determine whether faculty actions are appropriate.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay shared tentative plans in case the union moves to strike. She stressed that faculty are “responsible for maintaining continuity of lectures, sections, and evaluation.”
“If it happens that a strike begins, the first thing you should do is to let [students] know what to do and what to expect. If your building is picketed, we’re prepared to make exceptions to move class to Zoom,” Gay said. “You should be thinking about how to handle sections, such as adapting assignments since you have fewer staff.”
Gay said that although moving back to in-person instruction could be “a lot to process” or “draining” for faculty, she said it was a “hard-won moment” worthy of celebration.
“Classrooms are activated. The Yard is humming. Students are so grateful to finally be back together. And the energy here is palpable,” she added.