HKS Campus Pilot Program a Reminder that COVID-19 has Changed Everything

Dan Whalen
Dan Whalen is in this year's MC/MPA program and participated in the fall Return to Campus Pilot program.

My apartment is just a short walk from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). When I signed my lease in May, it never crossed my mind that I would never have an in-person class on campus during my one-year at HKS.  My quiet living room became my classroom. As a Mid-Career MPA, and with COVID cases rising, I felt like the only opportunity to see the hallmarks of campus was to join the “Return to Campus Pilot”. On November 17, I made the short walk to campus and set foot in an HKS building for the first time! There was a feeling of fulfillment as I entered the door, it finally felt like I was a Harvard student. 

From a logistics standpoint, the campus pilot was very well run. There were several actions that needed to be completed before entering campus: COVID testing, a health attestation, and registering for a room to study and take class in – all of which were relatively hassle-free. Each room was designated as a study space or Zoom classroom and was capped at capacity depending on its size. Students would sign up for a seat number in each room. At most, I was in a room with three other students. During the pilot, the building felt very empty – its hollowness was eerie. Everyone was very socially distanced. There were at most maybe 50 students in the building at one time. It certainly wasn’t the vibrant experience that I’m sure the other HKS students had when they first arrived. When I was not in class, I took time in the morning to wander the halls of the building, walking by my professor’s empty offices. 

I didn’t have any expectations of what the pilot program would be like, but I certainly didn’t expect the low amount of interaction with other students and staff. In my three days on campus, I didn’t recognize a single person, which may be a result of wearing a mask at all times while in the building.  While it was nice to be in an actual classroom, being in a room with three other students all taking different classes on Zoom did not make it feel like a true classroom experience, or like the Harvard experience I expected. On one hand, I sympathize with the administration trying to bring students in buildings while also following Massachusetts and Cambridge restrictions, but the pilot was certainly not designed with the student experience in mind. It was awkwardly obvious that we were there solely to test tools and processes. I understood there were strict protocols for the school to follow. I still wished I could have had more interaction to build community with those undergoing the pilot experience with me.

I hope the school allows students on campus to study as planned, even if it is just for a quiet escape from home. From the protocols implemented during the pilot program, it seems like scaling to a larger student population seems doable without breaking social distance requirements, While I found the pilot program to be an isolating experience, it was better than never being on campus at all.

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