Garber said officials will need to ensure data shows that most disease activity has passed and future waves of outbreak are unlikely before resuming on-campus operations.
He said Harvard briefly considered delaying the start of the academic year all together until 2021 but has taken that option off the table.
"For us, the most important decision is a clear one: Harvard will be open for fall 2020," his message asserts. "Our goal is to bring our students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows and staff to campus as quickly as possible, but because most projections suggest that COVID-19 will remain a serious threat during the coming months, we cannot be certain that it will be safe to resume all usual activities on campus by then. Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely."
He insisted leadership will do their best to safely adjust while preserving the college experience for students.
"Even if conditions do not allow for a traditional fall experience on campus, we are committed to ensuring that the learning and research of our students will continue at the highest levels of excellence and that we will do our part to enable them to achieve their aspirations," Garber wrote.
Colleges and universities across the United States are under increasing pressure to explain what fall semester might look like as deposit deadlines approach.
"The main fear and panic for many families … they're needing to make a decision by May 1st, which is the traditional deposit deadline, without all the facts," said Casey Near, college counselor with Collegewise, a college admissions counseling organization.
Near told Boston 25 News that many students and parents are now questioning the cost of college if it's delivered remotely.
“I think families are more acutely asking, ‘Is the cost worth it?’" said Near. “It’s heightened the importance and hunger for an in person connection. They’re saying that’s what I planned on, and I want that and I’m willing to potentially delay my plans so I can have that.”
Near said the pandemic doesn't necessarily translate into a blanket opportunity to defer.
“A lot of people are considering that. I think the reality is whether colleges will allow them to consider that,” added Near. “Some colleges are going to have to do it on a case by case basis because they still need students to come in the fall, even if it’s remote.”
Harvard is not saying if students will be charged the same tuition if classes continue online in the fall.
Read Garber's full message on Harvard's website here.