Zoe Berg

As coronavirus continues to infect scores of people across the world, the question of whether the fall semester will begin as regularly scheduled remains unanswered.

While rumors have fluttered across popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Yale administrators have begun drawing up contingency plans for how schooling will proceed in the coming months — ensuring that the University is prepared to react once federal experts can better predict the course the virus is likely to take.

“We are committed to welcoming students back to campus as soon as the public health situation warrants,” University President Peter Salovey told the News in an email. “If adjustments to the academic calendar become necessary, they will be worked out in consultation with public health experts and in keeping with governmental guidance, and will be announced as the situation becomes clearer.”

According to Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis, he and the Academic Continuity Committee — which he chairs — are looking at “what the best possible Yale education would be under various scenarios,” while waiting for official advice from the government and public health officials on when Yale can resume on-campus instruction. Part of the task, he said, is to envision what that education would look like if social distancing and travel restrictions remain in place.

“So we are not predicting the chances of one outcome or another—we are trying to prepare plans for various contingencies in the hopes that soon there will be more data (from the public health experts) to tell us which scenario is realistic,” Lewis wrote in an email to the News.

He added that waiting to see what Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont — who recently extended the state’s stay-at-home order to May 20 — and other governors decide regarding state policy over the summer will be an important factor in what Yale finally announces.

According to former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57, talks with small liberal arts colleges for whom he consults have revealed two hypothetical options for altering their academic calendars. On one hand, these schools could begin their semesters at some time in October, with final exams taking place after winter break and the spring semester remaining largely the same. Another possibility is to start the next academic year in January and hold the spring 2021 semester in the summer instead, Chauncey said. 

Chauncey added that in his conversations with these smaller college administrators, a regular start in August or September is mostly off the table. While social distancing might flatten the curve of the virus’s spread, he said, the “tail end” of the virus seems likely to continue for two or three months past the peak — which could risk a fresh wave of outbreaks if students return to campus too quickly.

In social media posts, some students have floated withdrawing from the University for a brief time to ensure their tuition money goes to an in-person education. The University has already projected a significant drop in revenue from the coronavirus outbreak, and fewer paying students could further impact its bottom line: Last fiscal year, Yale received nearly $400 million in net tuition, room and board.

The University is a member of the Association of American Universities, which recently co-signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that estimates a 15 percent drop in enrollment across American institutions next academic year.

Salovey also told the News that several administrators and faculty have split into committees, each one tasked with developing University policies in multiple areas of concern. For example, Salovey’s Chief of Staff Joy McGrath chairs the Emergency Policy Committee, while other groupings include the Research Continuity Committee and the Creative and Artistic Practice Continuity Committee.

The recent announcement on the University’s COVID-19 response webpage also lists the Academic Continuity Committee, which is split into three groups — two focused on in-person and online education, respectively, and the third on residential and extracurricular planning.

Still, speculation is growing as the University waits to make a statement about what will happen next semester — the “million-dollar” question, Dean of Yale Divinity School Greg Sterling told the News. Sterling will serve on the On-line Education Planning Subcommittee.

Rumors have circulated online, including one on Librex — an app popular among Yale students for its anonymous posting feature — which claimed that the Yale Corporation allegedly decided to delay the next academic year completely, with options for students who still wish to pursue their Yale education online. 

But in an email to the News, a person familiar with the Corporation’s deliberations debunked that rumor. The Corp, they said, is still actively discussing the fate of the fall semester, based on factors such as the accuracy and availability of testing and the University’s ability to perform contact tracing.

Yale already has experience with contagion. When students and faculty members returned to campus in fall 2009 — months after the H1N1 influenza virus was first detected in the United States — more than 660 cases were reported at Yale by mid-October. That semester featured a University far removed from regular operations: quarantine measures kept infected students and faculty members inside, away from others, for several days. Thanks to a vaccine, however, Yale’s health services more or less returned to normal by early 2010.

No such vaccine has yet been distributed for the novel coronavirus, which has killed over 140,000 people around the world and is considered 10 times deadlier than H1N1 by the World Health Organization. 

In an email statement, Yale Health Director Paul Genecin said he does not have the total number of University H1N1 cases on hand. But, he added, that pandemic had “minimal impact” because the illness’s severity was “less than had been feared.”

“We are carefully monitoring both the COVID-19 situation and our capacity to respond,” he wrote.

As of Thursday, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, over 200 people have died from COVID-19 in New Haven County — the second-highest number among the state’s eight counties.