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Letter regarding MIT's initial decisions about the fall

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The following letter was sent to the MIT community today by President L. Rafael Reif.

To the members of the MIT community,

In April, I asked Team 2020 to assess options for undergraduate education for the fall semester. Today, based on the team’s in-depth analysis and extensive community consultation, I write to share a first round of decisions about the undergraduate experience this fall – and to sketch out our overall plans for returning to campus.

Shaping Fall 2020 for undergraduates

Team 2020 presented a spectrum of options, ranging from having all undergraduates on campus in September to having no undergraduates here and all instruction entirely online. (Options in between included variations on the shape and timing of the academic calendar and the percentage of undergraduates on campus at any one time.)

Every option comes with drawbacks, and our community process did not produce perfect consensus. But we have now settled on the approach that drew the most positive feedback and problem-solving attention from undergraduates, faculty and those administrators and staff closest to the work. 

With many thanks to everyone who participated – here’s the basic outline:

  • To allow students to stay on track to their degrees, we will maintain the basic two-semester structure of our academic calendar. However, we may need to start a week early (around September 1), end any in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, and finish the term remotely. 
  • At least for the fall, we can only bring some of our undergraduates back to campus. 
  • Everything that can be taught effectively online will be taught online.
  • Undergraduates who are on campus will have some small-group in-person learning experiences, with particular focus on classes that require access to labs, workshops and performance spaces.
  • Every undergraduate living on campus will have an individual room, to allow for physical distancing. 

How many undergraduates will return to campus?

We don’t yet know. Undergraduates have overwhelmingly expressed how much they value being on campus; we aim to give as many students as possible the opportunity to return safely this year. However, because we judge that physical distancing requires using doubles and triples as single-occupancy rooms, our undergraduate residential population in the fall will be much less than our normal capacity – conceivably as high as 60 percent, but likely much lower. Exactly how many students can return at any point depends on several factors, some beyond our control.

Obviously, we cannot control the trajectory of the pandemic this fall, either here in Massachusetts or in the places around the world our students call home. We also have no control over the government response. We must accept these as unknowns and be ready to adapt.

However, we do have significant control over MIT’s ability to provide Covid-19 testing, contact tracing and quarantining. No matter how careful we all are, we must anticipate that we will face Covid-19 cases in the fall. Therefore, we want to be confident that we have the capacity to spot an outbreak quickly and limit its spread. 

Over the next few weeks, we will carefully review our assumptions about what we can successfully manage in any given period, based on what we know today. This will give us the data to decide how many students and staff we can responsibly welcome back on campus. A next step then will be to establish a set of threshold conditions that would require us to scale back or suspend operations.

When will we know more about Fall 2020?

For our undergraduates, incoming students and your families: I know you will still have many important questions. Who will be invited back for the fall semester, and based on what priorities? When will the semester begin and end? Where will I live if I am invited back? How will grading be handled? What will life on and around campus look like, and how will it be different from before? And many more.

With this baseline two-semester decision in place, we can now begin making the hundreds of subsequent interlocking decisions and arrangements required to make the fall a success and to give you the answers you need. We will share our detailed plans for the undergraduate experience no later than the week of July 6th.

For the whole MIT community: How will return to on-site work unfold?

Hundreds of MIT employees who are essential to our operations have continued to work on-site through the current phase of the pandemic. More will return as campus and other on-site activity increases. For the rest of us, here’s the order of eligibility to return:

  1. Research staff and faculty, because so much of their work is lab-based. Many are returning this week, following careful protocols.
  2. Graduate students, whose research generally also depends on lab access and whose apartment-style campus housing allows for physical distancing.
  3. Undergraduates, many of whom depend on campus resources for their work.
  4. Administrative and other non-research staff, many of whom can work effectively online. To help limit the total on-site population during this critical pandemic period, staff who can do so may be asked to work remotely at least through the fall semester.

Within these general categories, we recognize and are striving to respond to the wide variation in people’s lives, including individual vulnerability to the virus, circumstances that make it hard to work or study effectively from home settings, difficulties in local commuting or reaching campus from abroad – and more.

What will life on campus be like?

We all treasure the feel of MIT’s open campus. Unfortunately, campus life will feel very different this fall. These changes will include:

  • Mandatory Covid-19 testing before return and regularly thereafter
  • Mandatory public-health education
  • Daily health attestations via an app or website
  • Mandatory wearing of masks
  • Physical distancing
  • Contact tracing
  • Staggered scheduling and reconfigured work spaces
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols
  • Access to buildings through a single point and only with an MIT ID
  • No large gatherings or lectures
  • Much less travel

It is a lot to take in, I know. The details will matter. We will share more specifics with relevant groups and individuals on a rolling basis as key sets of decisions are made. But for now, I wanted you to have the big picture. 

I join you in feeling frustrated by the persistent uncertainty of the situation. We need to make decisions with incomplete, imprecise and dynamic information, and we are taking time to consult broadly. 

As we try to find the best way to safely adapt the massive enterprise that is MIT to the shifting realities of the pandemic, I deeply appreciate your thoughtful problem-solving and continued patience.


L. Rafael Reif

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