Harvard University is instructing students to move out of campus dormitories by March 15, as a way to stem the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.
While several colleges nationwide have shifted instruction online, which Harvard is also doing, it was one of the first U.S. institutions to ask students to leave residence halls.
Such closures and cancellations are unlikely to slow as institutions grapple with how to minimize the effects of the virus on their operations.
Harvard gave students a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday to vacate all campus housing, and it expects to grant “only a small number of delays or exceptions.”
The unexpected exodus represents a major disruption for the college’s operations because the labor-intensive move-outs typically only occur a couple of times a year. Officials have told students to take all of their belongings and to alert them if they can’t afford travel or lack alternate housing.
Harvard also plans to transition to all virtual instruction by March 23. It is one of several campuses nationwide to take classes online in response to growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19. U.S. officials have confirmed more than 800 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, and 28 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote in an open letter to campus on Tuesday that the decision to move classes online was not made lightly, but that the university was following the advice of health officials.
“The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings,” Bacow wrote, describing a tactic known as social distancing.
Initially, only a handful of colleges chose to take instruction online, but in the past several days, and in quick succession, many have canceled in-person classes.
Smith College, also in Massachusetts, followed Harvard on Tuesday and told students they would need to leave on-campus housing by March 20 and that they should not expect to return this semester. Room and board would be provided to students who had “no option but to remain on campus.”
Amherst College also told students they should leave campus by March 18 as it makes classes remote.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends institutions with identified cases of COVID-19 temporarily suspend class meetings and other events, and discourage students and staff members from congregating in big groups.
It also advises colleges to make sure students have access to safe housing and meals, including for students who must relocate.
Colleges that have not encountered confirmed cases, should take this time to prepare an emergency plan, the CDC says. This matches guidance released by the American College Health Association last week, which also described how officials should prep their student health centers and ensure staff there is trained in how to safely treat patients with the virus.
Many other institutions have elected to have students take all or most classes remotely for several weeks. Those include the University of California, Berkeley, Ohio State University and the University of Washington.
Online education groups have advised colleges to ensure their digital infrastructure can accommodate a potential increase in use. The U.S. Department of Education has also relaxed rules that allow colleges to take instruction online without getting the usual approvals.