COVID-19 Update: What 2021 Looks Like So Far At The Leading MBA Programs

A screenshot from the Harvard Business School coronavirus update page. Instruction went remote at HBS in November but is back to a hybrid model this spring

Spring is underway at most of the top MBA programs. As more and more coronavirus vaccines are administered around the United States and Europe and hope grows for a return to normalcy sometime in 2021, most business schools are preaching caution, employing a hybrid model for classes that in many cases is “hybrid” in name only. Virtual remains the method of the moment, though the ratio of in-person to remote instruction varies widely from school to school.

One complicating factor: Cases of the more highly contagious strain of coronavirus are now showing up on campuses, casting doubt on reopening plans. There’s still enough uncertainty to make it difficult to predict if the new cohorts that show up on campuses in the fall will see a return to normal or merely a relaxation of hybrid protocols with more in-person classes and fewer online. The expected widespread availability of vaccines this summer could make a big difference in how most MBA classes will be taught.


The situation was recently summed up by Harvard Business School’s Executive Dean Angela Crispi and Dean Srikant Datar. “We’re in a murky time with the pandemic,” the pair wrote in an update for the HBS community on Feb. 9. One mask or two? Should I be heartened by the drop in the positivity rate and availability of the vaccine, or concerned about the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus that seem to be emerging globally? At this moment of uncertainty we urge you to remain focused the things you can control:  wear your mask (or two, if that gives you greater reassurance), wash your hands often, maintain six feet of physical distance, and limit your gathering sizes…Persistence and perseverance aren’t the most inspiring of messages, we realize. But sometimes the basics are what’s needed most.”

At one elite school in the U.S., the planned percentage of live classes is so low, MBA students are registering their unhappiness with a petition calling for opening up campus. More than 400 Northwestern Kellogg School of Management students in both the one- and two-year MBA programs have called for greater access to the school’s Global Hub, where most classes are held, even as the school has planned for less than 20% of spring instruction to include an in-person element.

Kellogg Deputy Dean Sunil Chopra, responding to the outcry, emphasizes the positive: Kellogg, he says, “has offered a portfolio of learning options for our students since Summer 2020, when our MMM and 1Y students matriculated. This experience has given us a wealth of insights around the benefits of various learning modalities during the unique current circumstances related to Covid-19.”


Among the biggest insights is that certain courses or disciplines are better suited to particular modalities. For example, Chopra tells Poets&Quants, “masks can limit the learning experience in negotiations and communications courses because students and professors are not able to see facial expressions and nonverbal cues. Therefore, many of those particular courses are offered in a fully remote environment so that everyone can be unmasked for the entire time.” Adding that Kellogg has experimented with small-group learning, tech-assisted attendance strategies, and more, Chopra echoes administrators from across the graduate business education landscape in promoting the insights gleaned from a year of lockdown — and urging patience as the pandemic continues.

“Over time, we’ve evolved our portfolio of learning options based on these insights — always with the goal of meeting the needs and addressing the range of preferences of our diverse student body,” he says. “We recognize that this has been a tough year for our students — especially those graduating in a few short months. Few could have anticipated that we would still be operating in a Covid-19 environment nearly a year later. Through this period, our students have been great partners in shaping a distinctive Kellogg experience, providing candid feedback and real solutions as we work together to address disruption.”

Wharton Dean Erika James

Northwestern Kellogg’s spring quarter begins in March. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, full-time MBA classes have been underway since January 20, operating under what the school refers to as Alert Level 2, which includes some in-person teaching. “At this level,” Dean Erika James told students in a Jan. 15 message, “Wharton is able to conduct our various hybrid scenarios,” which include practicing physical distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands frequently.


Like Kellogg, Wharton has seen its share of MBA student discontent amid the coronavirus disruption, but the school has adjusted its approach as the pandemic stretched over the months. Dean James points to the establishment of the alert system as well as a set of university protocols outlined in a letter to the Penn community dated Jan, 14. “I ask that you stay vigilant by ensuring you are up-to-date on these and other recent communications from your program offices or other University contacts,” she writes. “Our commitment to bring students together safely and thoughtfully remains our number one focus, and to do so continues to be a shared responsibility for us all.”

Wharton’s alert levels are determined by daily review of data, James writes, and consider such factors as weekly case counts in Wharton’s home city of Philadelphia; both asymptomatic and symptomatic test positivity of faculty, staff, and students in the testing program; and isolation and quarantine utilization and capacity for students. Like other schools, Wharton has established a system of daily check-ins for campus visitors; all students who come to campus must register with PennOpen Pass, a symptom tracker “designed to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading within the Penn community.”

Among the notable innovations and safety measures developed to monitor Covid cases, heighten awareness, and improve student well-being at the top U.S. B-schools are Stanford Graduate School of BusinessCovid Dashboard, which “provides various daily and weekly updates about Covid surveillance testing, Health Check submissions, isolation, and prevalence in the Stanford community.” Stanford is currently in “Stage 2,” with campus access only for those with permission, which includes students; instruction is hybrid online and in-person.


The GSB Dashboard’s mid-February update indicated that over the previous 24 weeks more than 132,000 student Covid tests had been performed, resulting in 154 positive test results. “Also, over the last 24 weeks, more than 77,000 Stanford-facilitated and surveillance tests were completed/performed for faculty, staff, and post-doctoral scholars with 140 positive test results. Since last week’s report, 9 positive cases have been added to the “total confirmed positive cases” for faculty/staff/postdocs. Of the 9, 6 are included in the university testing count above, and the remainder tested positive through providers not facilitated by OHC (some of these outside tests were performed earlier than last week and have just now been reported to the university). Seven of the 9 positive employees were last on campus within two weeks of their diagnosis. The following illustrations provide additional details, pre and post-initiation of surveillance testing.” A recent report by the student newspaper suggested that recent positive tests were the result of rulebreaking by the MBA population.

Stanford’s surveillance testing is required for students living on campus or coming to campus regularly; details of the testing program are here. For faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars who are working on campus, surveillance testing began on a voluntary basis January 4 and is required on a weekly basis. Test results are usually available within 24-72 hours.

At MIT Sloan School of Management, two weeks of online classes begin Feb. 16, after which the school plans to transition to a hybrid approach. All students registered for in-person classes are required to test twice a week, three to four days apart, “regardless of how often they will be on campus,” the school’s Covid site states. “On any given day, in the prior 7 days, you must have been tested twice, with the 2 tests at least 3 days and no more than 4 apart (e.g. Monday/Thursday, but not Monday/Wednesday). If you have not complied with this testing cadence, you will not have access to” key campus buildings.


Once vaccinated, Sloan students nevertheless will be required to continue ongoing testing. “Current research shows that vaccines are most effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. The research does not conclusively indicate that vaccines prevent transmission of the virus. This means that you may be vaccinated and could still transmit the virus to others.” Sloan, too, has had its share of scofflaws in the MBA ranks, including a much-publicized event in September that led to a week-long lockdown.

At Harvard Business School, hybrid classes were paused in November when there was a notable spike of positive cases.  The school’s decision to go completely remote was sparked by what it called an “especially troubling” jump in close contacts when cases began to transition from quarantine to isolation.  This semester has begun without a repeat of these numbers, and classes are being taught hybrid this spring. But the school’s approach is dictated in large part by state restrictions. HBS administrators launched a new dashboard in February and have continued a heavy testing regimen. As of February 9, Harvard had conducted 18,112 tests, with 29 new positive cases: three undergraduates, 11 grad students, and 15 faculty, staff, and others. “This represents a 0.16% positivity rate — a decrease of .09% from last week at this time,” the school announced. No new announcements on changes to hybrid or in-person instruction have been made.

Meanwhile, a different approach is underway at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: Only allowing “local” students onto its Chicago campuses. “After consulting with the world-renowned epidemiology team at University of Chicago Medicine, we have determined that, should local guidelines allow, in-class student participation on all three of our campuses will be limited to ‘local’ residents,” the school announced. “In spite of the emergence of vaccines and their potential, we cannot let down our guard with respect to behavior that comports with dealing with the public health crisis.”


And what about Europe? London Business School and other UK-based B-schools are all remote-learning only, as England remains under a national lockdown. In France, a nightly curfew has been in effect since last fall in metropolitan areas, and MBA classes at HEC Paris are all virtual. At INSEAD, however, some classes are hybrid, and safety measures are prominently publicized. Students at the school’s campus in Fontainebleau must follow a set protocol, including downloading and activating the TousAntiCovid app, reading and signing the INSEAD Community Commitment, and carrying out a Covid test before coming on campus. The test must be taken less than 72 hours (but not more than 96 hours) prior to accessing campus.

At IESE in Barcelona, Spain, MBA students have returned to the classroom — albeit a much different-looking classroom. All students, faculty, and staff are required to undergo testing before they come to campus, and then fill out a health questionnaire every day to confirm they don’t have symptoms. When they arrive on campus, they present the QR code generated by the questionnaire, and have their temperature taken. Signage has been prominently displayed around campus to remind students of  occupancy levels, where to circulate, and how to stay safe.

See the next page for a listing of Covid-19 update pages at the top 25 U.S. B-schools and top European schools.

Have stories to share about life in MBA lockdown? Email Marc Ethier at

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