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Further decisions about the fall semester

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The following letter was sent on July 7 to the MIT community by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

This letter outlines our latest decisions about the Fall semester. 

The content focuses mainly on undergraduates. But I hope everyone will take time to understand our choices, because they highlight the deep changes we must all make, and sustain, to continue protecting our community against Covid-19.

You will also find some key details for graduate students and an important message for staff. We will share more information as soon as we have it.

You can learn more about all the decisions covered here in this extensive FAQ

How we decided

As we described previously, in planning for the Fall, we took a very MIT approach: broadly consultative, science-based and intensely analytic. 

To navigate the many painful trade-offs, we relied on bedrock principles: protecting the health of our entire community, preserving our ability to deliver on MIT’s mission of teaching and research, enabling students to stay on track to their degrees – and doing all this with equity, fairness and caring. 

In terms of public health, our strategy is conservative and reflects our awareness of how much we do not know about the future of the virus or the efforts to fight it. As the pandemic continues to rage across the US, we believe our approach represents the best, most responsible way for our community to begin to resume residential education. Crucially, it preserves our capacity to make it possible for any student on campus who may develop Covid-19 to isolate in place.

Yet however sound and careful our process, I know these decisions come with a real human cost. They will require all of us, especially our students, to adjust to a new set of hard realities – coming on top of a long season of Covid-driven disruption and dislocation. I wish we could offer you an easier answer, but Covid-19 is simply not yet under control.

Given the many Covid-prevention requirements we have spelled out before – such as mandatory testing, face coverings and physical distancing, and restricted building access – as well as the decisions below, we should all expect a temporary version of MIT that will feel unfamiliar and far from ideal. But I am hopeful that, once we become accustomed to this new reality, we will adapt constructively and find relief and inspiration in getting back to the work of teaching and learning.

What we decided

For undergraduates

Keeping the whole community safe will require that everyone living or working on campus be tested for the virus as often as twice a week, that each undergraduate living on campus has a private room and that the overall campus population – students, faculty, postdocs and staff – be kept far below our normal levels. Those constraints mean that we can invite back only a limited number of undergraduates for the Fall term.

We are inviting back two groups: 

  • Rising seniors, because they have the least flexibility to satisfy degree requirements and because being on campus is especially important for essential work in their programs, from capstone subjects to lab research and theses.
  • And a relatively small fraction of other students whose circumstances require special consideration in terms of their safety, living conditions, visa status or other hardship. We will announce the process to be considered for this second category soon.

Please note: Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued new rules about international students studying in the US at institutions that are shifting to online teaching for the Fall term. This ruling has potentially serious implications for our international students, both undergraduate and graduate; we are reviewing the details and will be in touch with all affected students as soon as possible.

Some seniors will be eager to return to campus. Others whose academic requirements lend themselves to remote learning may prefer not to return to campus this semester. We urge you to talk through this decision with your family, your academic advisor and the undergraduate administrator for your department. 

We appreciate the thoughtful position of the 2021 Class Council that seniors should be guaranteed space on campus for both semesters, and we know it must feel sharply disappointing that so many elements of the typical pre-pandemic senior class experience are out of reach. However, given the tight Covid-imposed limits on the number of students we can responsibly house, committing now to having the senior class in residence for both Fall and Spring would have the unintentional result of keeping many other students from having any campus experience this academic year. 

As a matter of equity, we believe it is important, in this academic year, to enable every student to spend at least one term on campus. Our current hope is to offer every first-year, sophomore and junior the opportunity to be on campus for the Spring semester. 

To help make that possible, we will spend the Fall term studying how to make campus residential life work best in the shadow of the virus and will closely track medical and policy advances that could help protect against it and control its spread. What’s more, with new housing coming online by the start of the Spring term, we also expect to have more beds available.

Under our current plan, given the facts we know at this time, seniors would not be on campus next spring. If conditions change fundamentally – for example, if an effective vaccine or treatment becomes widely available – we would be delighted to offer seniors the opportunity to be on campus for the Spring term as well.

To attend to the incoming Class of 2024, we are working on innovative strategies for delivering a special MIT first-year experience. First-year students will receive more information about these efforts next week.

Other important decisions about the Fall semester:

  • For students not living on campus, subjects for undergraduates will be taught online. For students on campus, there will be a combination of online and in-person instruction. Departments will make arrangements to make sure all students are able to make progress academically. Because MIT has helped pioneer online learning, our faculty members have access to first-class expertise and resources as they reinvent their classes for the Fall term. This past spring, faculty rose to the challenge of making their subjects digital in two frantic weeks. This summer, they are drawing on what they learned through that process to further adapt and prepare. We are striving to deliver a compelling educational experience that meets MIT’s standards of excellence. To the faculty members and instructional staff reading this letter: Please know how much we appreciate the exceptional efforts you are making this summer to make our first full Covid-era semester a success for everyone.
  • We know that many undergraduate students and their families may be facing significant financial pressures as a result of the pandemic. To help ease those concerns, we are taking a number of steps:
    • We are eliminating the tuition increase announced in early March.
    • We will provide a Covid-era grant of $5,000 to offset what undergraduates pay for attending MIT. Students who owe MIT more than $5,000 will receive a $5,000 credit. Students who owe MIT $5,000 or less will have their bill zeroed out.*
    • We are adjusting our aid budget to meet families’ increased financial needs.
    • In calculating aid awards for students living off-campus, we will assume a room-and-board expense of $4,000 per semester, which will serve to increase financial aid and help defray living expenses.**
    • We will offer each student, whether remote or on-campus, a paid undergraduate research, teaching or service opportunity, with a stipend up to $1,900.
    • Because the ability to collaborate on p-sets and projects is so essential to the MIT experience, we will loan a cellular-enabled Apple iPad and Apple Pencil to any undergraduate student (or graduate TA) who does not already have one, or who wishes to upgrade relative to what they own. These will be available to all enrolled students, on or off campus. Many faculty members will expect students to have these tools in hand for class collaboration, so we encourage everyone eligible to enroll in this program. As we did last Spring, MIT will loan wifi hotspots and computing equipment, including laptops, to those who need them. Technical support by phone or email is available to all, 24/7.
  • We aim to protect our on-campus residential community by creating as much separation as possible from potential sources of infection. Along with limits on our Covid-19 testing capacity and necessary limits on the population allowed in our facilities, this unfortunately means that undergraduates who do not live on campus will have no access to campus facilities or in-person instruction.
  • Since safety demands that we cannot allow cooking in shared undergraduate residence hall kitchens, all undergraduates living on campus must enroll in a meal plan. MIT will subsidize the cost of individual plans by 40%.
  • As part of the overall effort to reduce the possibility of infection and transmission, the FSILGs will be closed for the Fall semester. MIT will work with alumni to subsidize costs for house operations, so they can open once it is safe to do so.
  • We know this news will also be disappointing, but to eliminate the possibility of transmission and infection during games and matches, there will be no competitive athletics in the Fall semester. Institutions around the country in Division III have announced similar decisions.

You will find more answers in this detailed FAQ. We will also host an online forum so you can get a better sense of what the Fall term will be like and how we arrived at our decisions:

Fall 2020: An online forum for MIT undergraduates and families
July 15
Time TBD
Students and families will receive an invitation to the forum by email

Please also watch your email for further correspondence on the wide range of issues around undergraduate student life and academics.

For graduate students

Many graduate students resumed their work on campus in mid-June, following rigorous public health rules and protocols. For new and returning graduate students in the Fall, we will continue to follow rules as determined by health authorities, and you can expect a combination of online and in-person instruction.

However, beyond these basics, we know you need much more information to make your own decisions, including whether coming to MIT physically for the Fall is the best option for you. For international students, yesterday’s ruling by DHS further complicates the situation.

Because graduate programs vary so much in their length, nature and need for campus facilities, Fall plans will also differ by program, and many details are still being finalized. After course schedules are released on July 17, you can expect to hear directly from your department or program about plans for the Fall term. 

For now, for more information on more general topics like Covid testing and housing policy, please consult the FAQ.

For MIT employees

Watching our entire community learn to cope with a pandemic has highlighted how deeply MIT depends on the dedication, initiative, adaptability and brilliant problem-solving of all the people who work here. Please know how much I personally appreciate the patience, care and creativity you have poured into your work this spring. 

Some of you have continued to work on campus since Covid first arrived. Some have since returned, or will soon, as part of our research ramp-up. Some have not set foot on campus since March. Whatever your role or circumstances, I expect you will have questions and concerns about what the fall will look like for you and the people you work with. I know that MIT’s decisions on such subjects will matter very much to you and your families; centrally and in every unit, we are working through them now. We will share news with you as soon as we can.

*    *    *

Together, the decisions outlined here amount to a carefully considered forecast for this fall. Its accuracy – and our shared health and safety – certainly depend on the course of the pandemic. But they also depend on each and all of us: On our conscientious care for one another and on our ability to learn from and make the best of this unexpected challenge.

I’m in. I hope you are too.


L. Rafael Reif

*    *    *

*On July 14, 2020, Student Financial Services announced that all undergraduates enrolled for the full academic year 2020-21 will see the full benefit of the $5,000 Covid-era grant. SFS will apply the full $5,000 in the fall for all enrolled students, and it will appear as a credit on each student’s account. For more information, please visit here.

**On July 14, 2020, Student Financial Services announced that when the $4,000-per-semester room-and-board allowance in the financial aid award for off-campus students is combined with the $5,000 Covid-era grant, it will serve to defray living expenses, especially for students who will see decreased actual expenses. For more information, please visit here.

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