Light & Verity

A semester unlike any other

With a host of restrictions and accommodations, Yale welcomes students back to campus.

Jack Devlin/Yale University

Jack Devlin/Yale University

First-year students will not live on the Old Campus this fall, for the first time since the quad hosted military trainees during World War II. To accommodate social distancing, all first-years will live in their residential colleges, and some juniors will live on Old Campus. View full image

Two-thirds of the way through a most extraordinary and difficult year, Yale is beginning a most extraordinary and difficult semester, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to prevent a return to normal life across the United States. In a series of announcements in July, university officials described a semester in which classes will be mostly taught remotely online, a substantial portion of the undergraduate population will be physically absent, and campus life will be a pale shadow of its usual calendar of social, athletic, and cultural events.

Having students on campus at all was not a given. Princeton announced in early August that it was shelving its plan to bring first-year and junior students to campus and that it would shift to fully remote teaching. Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, explained in a statement that soaring infection rates across the country have shown the perils of reopening schools and universities, and that New Jersey’s tight restrictions on travel and social distancing would “significantly diminish the educational value of the on‑campus experience.” Penn and Columbia followed suit a few days later, and Brown pushed back its in-person opening until October.

In mid-August, with COVID numbers improving in Connecticut and surrounding states even as they were climbing elsewhere, Yale was sticking with its plan to permit some undergraduate students to live on campus, with restrictions to accommodate social distancing and a single room for every student. Juniors and seniors will be welcomed for both semesters; first-years will live on campus during the fall semester only, and sophomores in the spring semester only. Any student may opt to stay home and take virtual classes.

Courses in the Graduate School will be taught mostly online. Yale’s professional schools will employ a range of combinations of online and in-person class meetings—depending on class size, availability of space, and other factors. University-wide, all academic activities after the week-long Thanksgiving break—classes, reading period, and finals—will take place online, so students can finish the semester remotely if they go home for Thanksgiving.

Yale’s international students—nearly 2,800 across the university last year—faced special uncertainty over the summer. In July, the Department of Homeland Security issued a rule barring international students from returning to or remaining in the United States if all of their courses were going to take place online. Colleges and universities began planning workarounds. Law School dean Heather Gerken wrote that all of the school’s professors had volunteered to teach one-on-one tutorials with international students to stay within the letter of the law, and that “one of my colleagues told me that he would teach outside in the snow if he needed to.” DHS rescinded the rule a week later, however, after Harvard and MIT filed a lawsuit­ challenging the policy. (More than 200 other colleges and universities, including Yale, joined briefs in support of the suit.) New international students are still prohibited from entering the United States if their programs are 100 percent online, but many are expected to be able to come to Yale for a blend of online and in-person classes.

Reduced numbers
Without the pandemic, Yale College’s enrollment would have reached a record high this year, the fourth year of larger entering classes made possible by two new residential colleges. Instead, more than 300 first-years have opted to defer until next year, and about 30 percent of sophomores are taking the fall off rather than study remotely. As a result, total Yale College enrollment this fall will be about 80 percent of normal, with just over half of the usual number on campus. Since most graduate and professional students live off campus, a larger proportion of them is likely to be in New Haven, although schools are preparing remote options for students who may require them.

To ensure that students have single bedrooms, all first-years will live in their residential colleges; the Old Campus will house some juniors. Students were expected to arrive on assigned move-in dates in the last week of August and quarantine in their rooms for 24 to 36 hours after being tested for coronavirus. Those coming from one of the many states on Connecticut’s travel advisory list are required to quarantine for 14 days after arrival. Students living on campus will be tested for the virus twice a week throughout the semester.

Unlike last spring, when the college made all courses credit-fail after the abrupt mid-semester shift to remote learning, letter grades will be given this fall. Yale’s tradition of a “shopping period,” during which students may sample classes before turning in their final registration, will be altered somewhat; students will be required to register for courses before they begin, but they will be able to add or drop courses during the first week. Although nearly all classes will be online, the college says that “some discussion sections, lab courses, studio courses, and collections-based courses will be offered in person, with smaller enrollments to allow for physical distancing.”

Campus life
Outside the Zoom classroom, campus life will be far from the norm. Most visitors will be prohibited from campus. Dining halls will be open, but with reduced seating; packaged take-away meals will also be provided. Students will be required to wear masks and to social-distance. Large group events will be prohibited indoors, but socially distanced outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people will be allowed. Most musical and dramatic performances are out; the Yale Repertory Theatre has canceled its 2020–21 season entirely. The Ivy League has canceled all sporting events for the fall semester. (The year 2020 will be the first since 1944 without a Yale-Harvard game.) Payne Whitney Gymnasium and  the libraries will be open, with social-distancing restrictions.

As of June 1, more than 2,000 faculty and staff had resumed working in their offices, libraries, and laboratories. Although the library was still closed to the public as of early August, faculty, staff, and students are able to request books and pick them up at Bass Library. Laboratory research on campus, which had been confined to COVID-19–related work and other essential projects, was expanded in July to include all types of research, but with social distancing and a host of other restrictions.

Thousands more Yale employees were continuing to work from home in August until further notice. Some who aren’t able to do their normal jobs have been reassigned during the pandemic, but even those who are unable to work continue to be paid.

Although it is easy to dwell on what will be lost and what will be missed this semester, President Peter Salovey ’86PhD and Provost Scott Strobel encouraged the university community to show determination. “We must approach our work—to create and share knowledge that benefits humanity and to prepare leaders of insight and integrity—with a renewed sense of purpose,” they wrote in their letter announcing the fall plans. “There is a lot for us to do, and together, we will bring light and truth to a country and a world that need both.”


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