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Ivy League schools plan for fall 2021 semester

Harvard University’s campus.
“Harvard University Widener Library” by Joseph Williams / CC BY 2.0

While Princeton is aiming for a fall 2021 semester that will return to full in-person residential instruction and a sense of normalcy, many important details about exactly what the upcoming semester will look like remain undecided.

As the past year has shown, uncertainty is seemingly the only thing certain about the COVID-19 pandemic, a fact reflected in the vague nature of each Ivy League university’s fall plans. However, some similarities stand out in the decision-making process for these schools. Virtually all cite increased vaccination progress and improvements in the public health situation as reasons to be fairly optimistic about returning to some form of normalcy. All of these plans also revolve around a return to in-person residential and teaching experiences. 


Here is what each of the other seven Ivies have said so far concerning the upcoming fall:

Brown University

In an April 6 letter, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson said that the university is planning for the fall 2021 semester to be similar to pre-pandemic operations. 

“[W]e have every reason to expect that Fall 2021 at Brown will look and feel much more like Fall 2019 than Fall 2020,” Paxson wrote, citing COVID-19 vaccination rates and expectations that most of the Brown community will be vaccinated by the start of the fall semester. Expected changes include returning to the traditional two-semester academic calendar, in-person instruction and research, standard residential policies, and in-person co-curriculars and athletics.

For all undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, Brown has stated that it will require vaccination against COVID-19 in order to return to campus or in-person activity. However, exceptions will be made on medical and religious grounds. As of the time of this writing, Brown has not decided whether employees will be required to receive a vaccine against COVID-19, a decision that will be made by June 1.

Despite the relative optimism towards the upcoming semester, Paxson acknowledged that given the uncertain circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, all plans are subject to public health conditions and regulations. Certain decisions, including mask-wearing and testing protocols, are yet to be determined, pending more information about the status of the pandemic throughout the spring and summer.


Columbia University

Writing to the Columbia University community in March, President Lee C. Bollinger stated that he was feeling optimistic and called the semester a “homecoming,” given the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic and improvements in vaccination access both in the United States and abroad. With the expectation that “all Columbia affiliates” can be vaccinated by the fall 2021 semester, Bollinger said that the goal is to return to normal pre-pandemic campus life, including in-person instruction and research, normal residential life, and a traditional academic calendar.

However, Bollinger qualified his optimism by reminding readers of the uncertainty facing the fall and the possibility of altered plans. He also stated that more information and details would be released in the future. 

As of an update on April 19, Bollinger and Columbia’s COVID Task Force have made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for on-campus students in the fall. Exemptions on religious and medical grounds will be made in accordance with New York laws.

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Cornell University

According to Cornell University’s plans for returning to campus in the fall, Cornell is assuming that vaccination rates will be sufficiently high to achieve herd immunity and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Faculty, students, and staff were told to prepare for a return to regular in-person teaching and learning. In addition, Cornell is making fall semester plans based on two alternative vaccination scenarios, depending on the level of immunity achieved and with varying levels of social distancing and other safety measures.

All students returning to Cornell’s campuses in the fall will be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Students are asked to register their vaccination status and provide proof of immunization, but religious and medical exemptions will be granted. Those unable to receive a vaccination before the beginning of the semester are expected to get vaccinated as quickly as possible after arrival, and the university is looking into facilitating that process.

Further details about reopening will be released depending on data about vaccination rates among the Cornell community.

Dartmouth College

In a Dartmouth College “Community Conversations” livestream, Provost Joseph Helble announced that students returning in the fall must receive a COVID-19 vaccine authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. Faculty and staff are “strongly” encouraged to receive a vaccine as well. 

Dartmouth plans to track the number of students vaccinated over the summer to ensure that the community can reach herd immunity by the start of classes in September. If Dartmouth does not reach the necessary levels for herd immunity, “then social distancing protocols and a mixed hybrid-residential and remote learning model will be maintained for the fall.”

Harvard University

Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced that they are expecting a “full return to campus in Fall 2021” and are focused on resuming normal on-campus activities. Although subject to public health conditions as the fall approaches, Harvard anticipates a regular, full-density residential experience and in-person learning.

An announcement from Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow, Provost Alan M. Garber, and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp said that the university is targeting Aug. 2 as the date for faculty, staff, and researchers to return to campus.

Planning is still ongoing, and more decisions will be made as expectations about the fall change and as administrators learn more about what is required for returning to campus.

University of Pennsylvania

Citing the progress of COVID-19 vaccine distribution and projections of growing availability, the University of Pennsylvania is expecting an in-person residential, learning, and research experience for the upcoming fall semester, according to an April 22 announcement. Residential halls and dining will revert to regular capacity, although some social distancing and health measures may be required.

Vaccination against COVID-19 will be mandatory for all students, barring medical and religious exemptions. For faculty and staff, a decision on the matter will be made in the near future. Furthermore, UPenn expects to continue requiring masks in most settings, as well as testing and contact tracing.

Yale University

Yale University President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel announced in a March 29 statement to the Yale community that they were planning on a “full residential program for our undergraduates if public health conditions permit,” along with in-person teaching and research. These plans are still preliminary and are based on the assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic will improve and that most of the Yale faculty, staff, and students will be vaccinated by the beginning of the fall semester.

Salovey also writes that it is likely that Yale will still require precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as mask-wearing, testing, and vaccination clinics as needed. Furthermore, orientation and move-in procedures could be altered to protect public health, although residential spaces are expected to return to normal density. Move-in may be phased to allow for unvaccinated students to receive vaccinations upon arrival to campus. Campus facilities may also be subject to “enhanced safety measures,” and decisions about student gathering will be made in the future based on available guidance.

In a message to the community on April 19, Yale announced that all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, although “reasonable accommodations” will be made for religious and medical reasons. A working group has been established to decide if faculty and staff will be required to vaccinate, and a decision is expected in June.