After a surge in COVID cases, Harvard Business School is moving away from its hybrid teaching model and shifting to remote-only instruction for the rest of the fall semester. HBS also is imposing a new level of restrictions for on-campus activities and encouraging all MBA students to test for COVID three times this week.
“Students should expect all classes to be conducted via Zoom; other activities and events that were planned for on campus will need to move online,” according to an update posted by Executive Dean for Administration Angela Q. Crispi and outgoing Business School Dean Nitin Nohria.
The school announced its decision on Nov. 14 after a rise in positive COVID cases during the last week. Last Monday, HBS had five positive cases. By Saturday, the number had grown to 24. Last Monday, the school revealed, there were 14 individuals who were in quarantine. Five days later, 114 people were quarantined.
IN THE PAST WEEK, EIGHT QUARANTINED INDIVIDUALS TESTED POSITIVESeveral of the individuals in quarantine, moreover, have contracted COVID. Eight people in quarantine in the past week have tested positive. “In the initial weeks of the semester, this simply wasn’t happening,” wrote Crispi and Nohria. They added that students represent seven of every ten cases of COVID at HBS.
The school has largely traced the cases to social interactions among students. “In short, transmission is occurring among members of our community—largely among a subset of our MBA students, who represent approximately 70% of the total cases—rather than as a result of activities involving persons outside our community,” they added. “Additionally, we are seeing higher numbers (including occasionally in the double digits) of close contacts. Infections seem to be occurring as a result of activities that are natural and benign in normal times: group dinners and other social gatherings, group athletic activities, and travel without proper quarantine upon return among some number of our students. But during a time when the pandemic is surging broadly, it means infections in our community are likely to continue to rise at an unacceptable rate.”
OTHER COVID OUTBREAKS HAVE OCCURRED AT MIT SLOAN, CHICAGO BOOTH & KELLOGG
HBS and Stanford both opened their fall terms with hybrid formats, while Wharton chose to go fully online. Harvard had been limiting the size of a class to 25 students and imposing requirements for physical distancing and face coverings in indoor spaces, including all dining facilities and retail locations, where contact or interaction with others would naturally occur. Many HBS classes were also being delivered remotely with no in-person sessions.
Several other prominent business schools, including MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth and Northwestern Kellogg, have had to temporarily move to remote instruction after COVID outbreaks. Kellogg recently completed a temporary shutdown of in-person classes that also had included a “stay-at-home directive” for all of the school’s full-time MBA students. At least 17 Kellogg MBA students were diagnosed with Kellogg during that outbreak.
In this new communication, Crispi and Nohria asked students to “significantly limit” their social interactions with others. “We need everyone to identify their own small pod—no more than a half dozen individuals with whom you’ll interact in person for the remainder of the semester,” said Crispi and Nohria. “To be crystal clear: this does not mean a half dozen individuals at a time, but rather in total. Hunker down, find ways to connect with other classmates virtually outside your pod, and significantly limit your in-person contact with others. Dinners and other indoor gatherings—a time when masks are down, and physical distancing is unlikely to be maintained—should be avoided; please don’t host or attend these events with anyone other than your existing families or roommates or your small pod during this time.”
HOPES TO RETURN TO A HYBRID FORMAT EARLY NEXT YEAR
Harvard decided to put an end to its hybrid model for the semester because there were only two weeks left before the Thanksgiving holiday. “Were we earlier in the year, we would hope to transition to remote for a few weeks and then return to some in-person activities once the infection rate drops,” they added. “But Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away. The number of classes after this long weekend is small, and we know already that a number of students plan not to return to campus after the break. For those who do, quarantine requirements mean many won’t be able to engage in in-person activities for 6-8 days. As a result, we’ll have too few students in the classroom to sustain hybrid classes.”
The pair warned that even students who receive negative COVID tests should not be confident of those results. “We need to dispel what appears to be the belief that a negative test means you are COVID-free. You could be carrying a low enough viral load to test negative for one test. Within hours of submitting the test, however, the viral load could multiply enough to allow transmission of the virus to others. Or, you could be carrying the virus and receive an initial false negative test result (please note that while false negatives are possible, false positives are exceedingly rare). This is why we stress that testing is not a panacea. It is a screening mechanism to quickly isolate those who have been infected and to quarantine their close contacts, rather than an in-the-moment wellness check or a license to freely interact with those who may also have tested negative.”
The decision to move to remote instruction does not rule out a return to hybrid teaching in January. “We have every expectation that we will start the spring semester as we did the fall semester, barring conditions at the state or national level that would preclude this happening,” according to the communication. “Our learning these last few months has been significant, and we are eager to work with students, staff, and faculty to find ways to ensure the continued health, safety, and well-being of our community in the new year.”