Amay Tewari

The novel coronavirus has radically altered Yale’s spring 2020 semester. But as the virus continued to spread across the globe, the fate of next fall remained an open question for all of May and June.

Through communications like University-wide emails and virtual town halls, University President Peter Salovey and other officials have provided regular updates surrounding the virus. But given the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, University officials did not announce definitive plans as they continued to monitor the crisis and evaluate viable options.

“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 April 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.”

In an email to the Yale community in late-April, Salovey said that he will announce plans for the fall semester by early July. His message came after weeks of speculation on social media, in which student and faculty members mulled over potential scenarios ranging from a complete cancellation of the fall semester to an online option where students still live on campus. Still, in his email, Salovey wrote that government updates and guidelines — along with news of any advances in testing, therapeutics and contact tracing — will play significant roles in what the University ultimately decides.

Salovey and University Provost Scott Strobel have arranged six COVID-19 contingency planning committees to help with decision-making. These committees, composed of Yale administrators and faculty, were created to help the University adapt to the pandemic.

In an email to the news, Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote that part of the work of the Academic Continuity Committee — which he chairs — will consist of adapting hypothetical on-campus instruction if social distancing measures still prove necessary.

“We are eager to return to regular instruction on campus as soon as the public health situation permits this,” Lewis wrote. “My committee is looking at what the best possible Yale education would be under various scenarios.”

Other groups include the Research Continuity Committee and the Creative and Artistic Practice Continuity Committee, according to an earlier announcement from Salovey and Strobel.

Despite the unknowns, University administrators have already made some concrete decisions. Instruction will definitely “continue” in the fall, Salovey said. And the pandemic’s financial costs have pushed Strobel to announce a hiring and salary freeze through July 2021. In a virtual town hall, Salovey told his internet audience that the University will utilize a data-driven approach to any further decisions — and that “this isn’t really a moment for gut feelings.”

“We need to preserve our core missions, our missions that have engaged this University for 319 years,” Salovey said. “We must take the long view in how we think about our human and our financial resources. And I want to be clear: we will be educating our students in the fall. We don’t know yet in what manner, but we will be teaching and creating new knowledge.”

In a press release on May 6,  Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced that he had received a detailed report containing recommendations for a phased reopening of colleges and universities in the state in response to the pandemic. The report — prepared by former president of Yale University Rick Levin and former Yale Vice President of Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Lorimer, both of whom are co-chairs of the education committee of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group — discussed a gradual reopening of higher education campuses over the course of the summer based on the type of educational programs offered and whether they provide residential services. The report recommended that by fall semester, if the prevalence of the disease is low enough to allow the safe resumption of campus operations and if institutions meet several public health conditions — including access to adequate testing and contact tracing capacity — universities may reopen at their own discretion.

“Our colleges and universities are the springboard for so many to launch their careers, and they are an economic engine of the state,” Lamont said in a press release on the topic. “And of course it can’t go without saying that Connecticut’s great research universities are working to help bring an end to the current pandemic. Given the heterogeneity of our colleges and universities, one size won’t fit all, which is why we need carefully tailored guidelines for differing parts of this sector. This framework to reopen our higher education institutions is a vital component of our overall plan to reopen Connecticut.”

Yale already has experience with contagion and public health crises in its long history. 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 halfway through the semester. That crisis 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 290,000 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.

The 2020–21 school year is currently set to start on Sept. 2.

Julia Bialek |