When Joseph W. Hernandez ’25 arrived back in Cambridge after winter break in January, he felt sick. He purchased a Covid-19 antigen test from a local pharmacy to be on the safe side and tested positive. Per Harvard College Covid-19 policies, he had to isolate for five days. However, Hernandez lives in a one-room double in Adams with a roommate and felt a responsibility to not infect him.
“I’m not giving him Covid. I don’t need that on my conscience,” he remembers thinking at the time.
Hernandez, a Crimson Editorial editor, had tested positive for Covid-19 on campus before, the first week of his freshman year. While quarantining at the Harvard Square Hotel was not an ideal start to his college experience, he “felt pretty well accommodated.”
A year and a half later, Hernandez was left to his own devices to determine how to isolate. Following current Harvard guidelines for students who test positive, Hernandez was expected to isolate on campus in his room. With no way to attend classes – in person or remotely – and nowhere else to isolate on campus, he chose to isolate off campus for the first week of the semester, experiencing a second abnormal start to a college semester due to Covid-19.
While President Joe Biden declared Covid-19 to no longer be a public health emergency on April 10, and the public health emergency will end at the Massachusetts state level on May 11, the coronavirus is still spreading. At Harvard, students are still getting Covid-19, but now without the campus supports that were instituted during earlier stages of the pandemic.
As the burden of managing Covid-19 shifts to individuals, many students have found that it has been harder to avoid getting sick or getting others sick, especially in a communal living environment.
This reduction has been framed as “streamlining”; Harvard University Health Services Executive Director Giang T. Nguyen announced the closure of Crimson Clear contact tracing and support in December, stating, “The University is streamlining the tools, resources, and strategies needed to ensure that the community can manage healthy behaviors and illnesses more independently.”
Mark E. Rifkin ’26 rephrases the message in his own words: “It’s still important to prevent Covid, but we are basically just getting rid of everything that would prevent Covid.”
Rifkin, who is immunocompromised, says some of the original policies and resources the University established a few years ago would have been helpful when he had the flu and Covid-19 this past fall.
“Publishing the results of testing, making quarantine policies clear, making isolation dining better, improving options for people who don’t want to dine in person or be in person for events – those are all things that you can do without impacting the return to normal for anyone. And Harvard’s basically abandoned them,” he says.
Harvard updates its Covid-19 policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, an HUHS spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
Students on campus must be fully vaccinated to an extent. The most recent booster was encouraged, but not required to attend classes, though students who did not receive the booster were given a course registration hold. Still, there are high stakes to the lack of infection prevention measures Harvard has set up. Studies have shown that getting Covid-19 repeatedly increases the risk of long Covid and that Covid-19 infections can cause long-term health issues. The vaccine decreases the percentage of transmission that occurs and the severity of symptoms when one is infected, but is not a panacea for preventing acute infection or long Covid. These policies also do not acknowledge the infectivity of asymptomatic spread; students who may be infected with Covid-19 but are asymptomatic do not need to test and isolate.
In 2023, there are still continued logistical challenges that Harvard affiliates face back on campus, but the minimization of these challenges — and of the pandemic itself — has created uncertainty, confusion, and continued disruption of many students’ experiences at Harvard.
Ghosts of Covid-19 safety measures past are scattered around campus — signs that demonstrate Harvard is capable of mobilizing a response when it deems that it is necessary to do so. Portable air filters sit unplugged in classrooms next to discarded cleaning supplies. Outdated posters directing viewers to the now defunct “Keep Harvard Healthy” initiative are still posted on House bathroom mirrors, encouraging viewers to wash their hands to prevent the spread of coronavirus – although research has long since shown that this is not the most effective way to prevent the spread of airborne illnesses like Covid-19. One of the lounges on the 10th floor of Smith Campus Center still has a sign designating it as a mask-only space for those who wish to remain masked, but this is not enforced or followed.
Seeing these references to discarded policies on display could perhaps create a sense of safety for those who are less informed about the virus. But to many, remains of past guidance are haunting rather than reassuring.
June R. Moretz ’25 felt relatively safe from the virus when they first arrived on campus for their freshman year. In fall 2021, students had access to PCR testing three times a week, isolation housing, designated isolation food pickup locations in all 12 undergraduate residential houses plus Annenberg, mask mandates in classrooms, and contact tracing and email notifications through Crimson Clear.
All that remains of Covid prevention measures today are rapid tests and surgical masks available for optional pickup at House offices, two isolation dining pickup locations, and a policy directing students who test positive to isolate and then wear a mask for five days.
Moretz began to wear an N95 mask in all public spaces as they witnessed the disintegration of prevention measures during the start of the spring 2022 semester, which conflicted with their understanding of the severity of Covid. They say a “massive spike” in positive Covid-19 cases motivated them to increase their mask usage.
During the January 2022 Omicron variant surge, wastewater viral loads and case counts spiked. On Jan. 12, 2022, when Harvard announced that infected students would isolate rather than quarantine in University-provided isolation housing — and cut the required isolation period for infected students in half — Middlesex County reported more than 4,800 cases per day.
“I was not about to go out and be unmasked around a population where 5 percent of people at any given time had Covid,” Moretz says. “That felt too risky.”
In the past, Harvard was a leader, rather than a follower, in setting standards for preventing the spread of Covid-19. In March 2020, Harvard created policies in real time, acknowledging that the University did not have the infrastructure to keep the campus safe at the time.
In a 2020 interview with the Harvard Gazette, the University’s then-Executive Vice President Katie N. Lapp said while Harvard drew on the advice of “international, federal, state, and local authorities such as the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], and the Massachusetts Department of Health,” the University’s “extensive, coordinated, and well-practiced planning infrastructure” was developed through University-wide planning in the absence of official governmental recommendations to do so.
Members of the University Coronavirus Advisory Group, a group composed of leading medical, public health, and policy Harvard affiliates with the goal to “minimize the impact of the virus on the campus and community,” rationalized the transition from required to voluntary testing in an interview in the Gazette in April 2022. UCAG member Michael Klompas, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, cited the “large number of community members who have had and recovered from Covid infections” and that “vaccines plus natural immunity provide very potent protection against hospitalization and death” as key reasons for the policy shift.
The focus on the prevention of immediate death or severe symptoms has persisted despite the evidence that there are real long-term consequences to acute — not necessarily severe — Covid-19 infections. “We’re seeing long Covid most often in people who did not have severe Covid initially, and there may be clues that the robustness of the immune response and subsequent persistent immune activation could drive symptoms,” said Jason H. Maley, director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Critical Illness and Covid-19 Survivorship Program, in a 2021 interview with the Harvard Gazette.
Harvard guidelines do acknowledge that Covid-19 can cause complications — but mainly for those considered to be at risk. The faculty guidelines state, “Remember that some members of our community, or their family members and other loved ones, are vulnerable to complications from Covid-19 and should continue to wear a mask.” But Covid-19 can cause complications for young, healthy people too.
Kai D. DeJesus ’23-’24, who wears a mask to protect herself from Covid-19 in public spaces, describes Harvard’s policies as “largely shaped by optics and liability, rather than any kind of compassion.” DeJesus worries about how many students are repeatedly being exposed to Covid and the possibility of them developing health conditions as a result. “How many of them will get Covid two, three, four times? How many will inevitably end up with long Covid?” she says.
By rolling back its Covid-19 restrictions, DeJesus argues, the University may have misled Harvard affiliates into believing that Covid infection is inevitable and that serious precautions no longer need to be taken. Moreover, those who continue to be concerned about the effects of Covid-19 are left with no other way to get their degree or keep their job without risking exposure to the virus amid minimal prevention measures.
Air ventilation and filtration are key to reducing the spread of Covid-19 in the air, but there is no public data about the air quality in each of Harvard’s buildings. How much ventilation there is or how often building air quality is tested is unclear. An HUHS spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement that Environmental Health and Safety provided guidance to building managers for operating HVAC systems and improving ventilation. Due to this measure, the spokesperson added, there is less need for portable air filters.
With no widespread, regular testing cadence in place — on campus and off — and no up-to-date Covid-19 dashboard, it is difficult for students to know how many people on campus have Covid, symptomatic or asymptomatic, which “makes things a lot more iffy than they were back when we had consistent mandatory testing,” Moretz says.
In September 2022, Harvard stopped offering PCR testing to affiliates and dismantled the Color testing apparatus they had set up on campus. Megan Coram ’23 appreciated the ease of being able to test with more certainty on campus. “I was disappointed when they took away the PCR testing just because I really liked having that as an option,” Coram says. “That was super useful.”
Harvard students now are able to optionally access rapid antigen tests through their house or yard offices to test. However, rapid tests are less sensitive than PCR tests and are more likely to give a false negative. Clarissa Briasco-Stewart ’23-’24 felt safer on campus when testing was in place last year, adding that she wishes “Harvard at least offered PCR testing as an option.”
The HUHS website directs those who want PCR tests to find local PCR testing locations via the Massachusetts “Find a Covid-19 Test” website, which no longer provides a searchable list of testing locations and redirects visitors to the CDC’s website. The CDC’s “No-Cost COVID-19 Testing” locator does not specify whether the listed locations provide PCR testing. The CVS in Harvard Square does not offer PCR tests.
A spokesperson for HUHS wrote in an emailed statement that Covid-19 testing and exposure guidance is available on the HUHS website, adding that students should request residential or academic accommodations from their school or unit.
Students who seek to avoid Covid-19 have often missed out on opportunities on campus because they have chosen to prioritize their health. Karina H. Halevy ’23 says that since the retraction of Covid-19 restrictions, life at Harvard has become much more anxiety-ridden. “It’s definitely had a negative impact on my emotional and mental health,” she says. “Not only the anxiety of having to think about the potential of getting sick at the same time that I’m trying to pay attention in class but also just not being able to go to most social events because they’re unmasked gatherings.”
Both Halevy and Moretz say they take meals to go, eat outside when possible, or eat in dining halls when they are less crowded to decrease their chances of a possible infection. “Because I’m less active in certain social situations that might be higher risk, it does make it harder to get to know people,” Moretz says.
Halevy echoes this concern. “My social life is definitely more limited coming back,” Halevy says. “I’m still close with most of the friends I met freshman year, but I haven’t been able to interact with them in person as much.”
“I feel like my relationships have not been as close as they would have been,” she adds.
In the absence of comprehensive testing or ventilation, some students are trying to reduce their risk of infection by masking in public.
DeJesus is one of the only students who still wears a mask in her classes.
“It makes me feel a little crazy,” she says. “Even though I know that I’m not. Even though I’ve done public health research, even though I’ve read the data, even though I understand why I do it, I sit there in a class called ‘Global Inequality.’ And no one except me is wearing a mask.”
DeJesus’ experience is not unique. Every student who still wears a mask in class that we talked to says they are the only one, or one of few.
Harvard Yard Operations in Weld Hall is the only residential location on campus where students can acquire KN95 masks. All upperclassmen house offices only provide surgical masks, which students who test positive or are exposed to Covid-19 are expected to wear. Surgical masks have been shown to be less effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19, as they do not prevent aerosols from leaking.
Moretz criticizes Harvard for supplying surgical masks rather than respirators to students, saying, “They should be at the very least supplying reputable KN95s” if the University won’t supply N95s.
Researchers have shown that it takes less time for someone wearing a surgical mask to become infected with Covid-19 than someone wearing an N95, even if the N95 is not fit tested.
The guidelines for faculty and researchers within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences state, “If a student or instructor feels the need to continue wearing a mask for their own protection, or the protection of someone close to them, they should do so. Wearing a high-quality mask that fits securely over the face without air gaps is an effective way to reduce personal risk.”
But many researchers and physicians argue that one-way masking, especially mostly with surgical masks, is not very effective at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Applying a “Swiss cheese model” of layering personal and shared methods of protection is considered to improve the success of preventing spread.
Isolation becomes even more important in the absence of two-way masking mandates and high-quality masks. Rifkin describes how isolating for only five days allows for Covid-19 to spread more easily. “I isolated, obviously, until I tested negative for two days, which I think would be a more reasonable policy besides telling people to go back before they feel better and are negative,” he says.
But for many students, this isolation requires access to space that Harvard does not currently have available. Hernandez says he “definitely” would have gone to isolation housing to avoid infecting his roommate had it been an option that was made available to him. He believes there could be ways for sick students to be isolated in the absence of designated isolation housing on short notice. “There’s two or three dorms on my floor that are just empty. It looks like we have a little bit of space to spare,” he says.
Numerous students argue in favor of masking when sick as a general practice. “Please mask if you’re sick, even if it’s not Covid. That’s just a good idea,” Hernandez says.
Halevy, a head teaching fellow for Computer Science 51: “Abstraction and Design in Computation,” wears a mask when she teaches her section. She provides a box of masks in the room when she teaches to normalize the idea of wearing a mask.
“I basically introduced myself to my students over email and said that even though I can’t require masks in class, I still strongly encouraged them and informed them about the risk of long Covid. And then pretty much no one came to class with a mask,” she says. “But the SEC did have a giant stock of surgical masks, so I put a box at the door and every single person took one and put it on for my class. And that was really sweet.”
When students get sick, many students say they risk being penalized academically for isolating due to feeling ill or being symptomatic — with Covid-19 or any other illness. The current Dean of Student’s Office isolation guidelines state that “Students are responsible for ensuring that they keep up with their courses when they go into isolation for Covid.” However, there are no clear guidelines for the length of extensions, number of excused absences, and level of support that professors should give.
One student we talked to, who asked to remain anonymous, tested positive for Covid-19 in February. They emailed their professor to determine what to do to keep up with work when isolating. For one of their classes, missing class due to a University-mandated isolation policy is counted as an unexcused absence, and only two unexcused absences are allotted in the class without a grade penalty. They did not raise this with the professor because the unexcused absence would not harm their grade, so long as they did not get sick and miss class another time.
The Crimson granted anonymity to this student to discuss sensitive medical information.
There are also a vast number of policies across the different schools. On March 3, a post on the Canvas page of Chemistry 27: “Organic Chemistry of Life” encouraged students to “refer to the University Covid policies for guidance on the following cases: symptomatic Covid tests, asymptomatic Covid tests, symptomatic Covid close-contact exposure, and asymptomatic Covid close-contact exposure.” However, no such clearly defined case scenarios exist in either the FAS Faculty Health Guidelines or general HUHS Covid policies. The course staff for Chemistry 27 wrote in an emailed statement that the University follows CDC guidance on exposure to Covid-19.
For the first year of the pandemic, Harvard’s classes were almost entirely on Zoom. Now, the FAS Spring 2023 health guidance for faculty and researchers discourages the use of Zoom “as means to include an absent student in class sessions [as] many Harvard classrooms do not have the requisite installed AV equipment to support the equitable, effective inclusion of students in a class session or discussion.” Rather, Harvard Education Support Services suggests that the professor, or other students present in class, record and upload a recording for the absent students to watch later.
The anonymous student says their professor let them attend a class via Zoom when they were isolating but told them not to tell anyone because they were afraid of not following the FAS guidelines.
Professors are not allowed to mandate masks in their classes unless they receive special permission to do so due to a health condition. Faculty who may be in a high-risk group due to age or live with someone who is at risk do not have the same protections as faculty who are able to receive an accommodation through University Disability Resources.
Even students and TFs registered with disability services who are at risk for long-term complications from Covid-19 are not allotted the same protection as at-risk disabled faculty. They cannot receive an accommodation for others to mask around them in classes. A representative of the Disability Access Office wrote in an email that their office follows Harvard’s overarching mask guideline that face coverings are optional, adding that students should request additional accommodations related to a disability through the DAO, and faculty and staff should request accommodations through University Disability Resources.
Although most professors can’t request that students wear masks, they are still expected to monitor the mask usage of students who have been infected with Covid-19. The spring 2023 health guidance from FAS for faculty encourages professors to contact a student’s resident dean “if a student is not masking in a class within the five days following isolation for Covid, as currently required.” This level of enforcement requires a professor to keep track of who tested positive for Covid-19, when each student returned to class, and when a student’s isolation began — and is only possibly feasible if a student notified their professor that they specifically were infected with Covid-19 (rather than another illness) in the first place.
Some professors and departments make an effort to reject Harvard’s guidance that “masking is a personal decision” while still following the rules. Women, Gender, and Sexuality Director of Undergraduate Studies Caroline E. Light writes in an email that “WGS does not have any mandate for masking, nor do we obligate people to mask while in our offices or classrooms. We do, however, practice an ethic of care and of disability justice.”
In her own classes, Light chooses to mask in an effort to protect others from possible germs she may be carrying. She also asks that class participants “consider wearing masks in the interest of protecting themselves and each other from viruses, including Covid.” She says she roots this suggestion in “a justice-centered appeal to communal health and safety in which we are all implicated and from which everyone benefits.”
While there are many campus health preventative measures Harvard could revive, there is a financial cost to doing so.
Harvard spent about $83 million in the 2020-21 academic year on Covid-19 safety measures. The cost went down to $53 million for the 2021-22 school year. Harvard was reimbursed more than $22 million through FEMA grants and recouped other costs by cutting expenses elsewhere.
The grants Harvard received through FEMA were part of the Public Assistance program, an “essential source of funding for states and communities recovering from a federally declared disaster or emergency,” a FEMA press release states. Covid-19 is no longer a federal public health emergency, so FEMA grants are no longer a possible source of funding.
In an email welcoming students back to campus in fall 2021, Dean Khurana stated that Harvard affiliates would need to “ask questions about what aspects of pre-pandemic life we want to embrace — and what aspects of pre-pandemic life we may not want to recreate.”
Now in 2023, the pandemic is still not over, but most of Harvard’s original Covid-19 prevention measures are. The questions Dean Khurana asked still stand. What prevention strategies developed at the beginning of the pandemic should be embraced rather than discarded? How does Harvard ensure a campus that is safe and accessible for everyone?
“There’s a balance,” Rifkin says. “I think there’s a lot of stuff that Harvard can do that is not invasive.”
Moretz has a similar position: “There should be options for people who need options, rather than just simply mandating a policy of ‘Everyone must ignore the reality of Covid or take every protective step.’ It’s not all or nothing.”
Correction: April 25, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard did not require the most recent Covid-19 booster for students. In fact, Harvard did not require the booster to attend classes, though students who did not receive it were given a course registration hold.
— Magazine writer Kendall Shields can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kendallishields.
—Staff writer Charlotte P. Ritz-Jack contributed reporting.