Harvard Business School Moves MBA Classes Online As Covid Cases Surge

2021 is looking uncomfortably like 2020. Poets&Quants has learned that Harvard Business School is going back to remote instruction for all first-year MBA students courses after a “steady rise in breakthrough infections” among students. The move is effective this week, September 27 to October 3.

Some second-year courses also will be taught remotely this week, the school announced.

“In recent days, we’ve seen a steady rise in breakthrough infections among our student population, despite high vaccination rates and frequent testing,” Mark Cautela, head of communications for HBS, tells P&Q. “Contact tracers who have worked with positive cases highlight that transmission is not occurring in classrooms or other academic settings on campus. Nor is it occurring among individuals who are masked.

“With the support of Harvard University leaders, advised by city and state public health officials, we have decided to move all first-year MBA students, and some in the second year, to remote learning for the week of 9/27 to 10/03.”


A screenshot from Harvard’s Keep HBS Healthy page

Cautela continues: “During this time, we have also asked all students to eliminate unmasked indoor activities, limit in-person interactions with others outside their household, move all group gatherings online, and cancel group travel. We have increased the frequency of testing to three times a week and we are also preparing a new daily email to all students to keep them fully apprised of all aspects of the situation.”

HBS’s move to remote instruction was announced with a line on its Keep HBS Healthy web page, but students had been notified directly.

Adam Gaffin, founder and editor of Boston-based community news site Universal Hub, on Sunday (September 26) wrote: “In one of a series of messages to students, the school says it hopes a week of remote teaching will let the business school put a damper on what is now an ‘active cluster’ and keep it from getting worse.” He included the partial text of one of the messages:

“Harvard University leaders, advised by city and state public health officials, now tell us that we must consider the MBA Program an active cluster and escalate our approach — hit a ‘circuit breaker’ and get in front of the virus rather than react to it. … Feedback from the contact tracers who have worked with positive cases among our student population highlights that transmission is not occurring in our classroom or other academic settings on our campus. Nor is it occurring among individuals who are masked. Rather, it is occurring as a result of numerous unmasked, indoor activities — everything from sharing an Airbnb for the weekend, to dinner gatherings in an apartment, to larger parties.”


Howard Forman, professor in the practice of management at Yale School of Management and a medical doctor who also teaches in Yale’s School of Public Health, wrote September 24 on Twitter that Harvard was facing a “substantial outbreak” based in HBS, with the B-school’s positivity rate 12 times that of the rest of the university. Two-thirds of all Covid cases at Harvard are HBS students, Forman wrote.

On Sunday (September 26), he revisited the worsening situation: “Outbreak at Harvard (Presuming it is the HBS outbreak, continuing) remains with 11 new graduate students testing positive in last batch of tests. School leadership imploring HBS students to avoid unmasked indoor interactions.”

Harvard’s Covid-19 dashboard currently shows that most of the 68 positive tests among Harvard students and staff between Sept. 20 and Sept. 24 were among graduate students. The site does not break out the numbers by school, but adds that 95% of all students and 96% of professors and staff are fully vaccinated.


HBS has been here before. About 10 months ago, in November 2020, a Covid-19 surge forced the school to move classes fully online. The difference then was that the school already was using a “hybrid” teaching approach, with some classes being taught virtually and some in-person; it was therefore easier to move everything online. This fall, like its peers and nearly every other U.S. B-school, Harvard has been using all in-person instruction, albeit with what it describes as a rigid testing, masking, and social distancing protocol.

Another difference from 2020: then, the move online lasted through the end of HBS’s fall semester. But this year’s classes only began a few weeks ago in late August, explaining the one-week approach.

The classes moved to remote instruction are mostly for “RC” students, or first-year students in the school’s “Required Curriculum.” “EC” students — second-years in the “Elective Curriculum” — are less affected, presumably because they have been better about following the schools pandemic protocols. As P&Q has reported, last year’s cohort was one of the smallest in school history — and this year’s is the largest, with more than 1,000 students.


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