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MIT announces plans for fall 2020 semester

Extensive safety protocols will undergird the return of additional students and staff to campus.
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In inviting some of its undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester, MIT will prioritize seniors — to allow them to progress toward completion of their degrees in 2021 — as well as others who need to be on campus, or who require in-person instruction, to succeed in their coursework.

Across the board, undergraduate costs for the coming academic year will be reduced substantially: Tuition will be held at last year’s level, eliminating a planned 2020-21 increase announced earlier, and undergraduates will receive a $5,000 grant to offset their annual cost to attend MIT. Undergraduates living on campus will see a 40 percent reduction in dining costs, and all undergraduates will be offered at least one semester of a paid research, teaching, or service opportunity in the coming academic year, carrying a stipend of up to $1,900. Finally, the Institute has adjusted its financial aid budget to meet families’ greater needs in a difficult economy — and aid calculations will assume a room-and-board expense of $4,000 per semester, which will serve to increase financial aid and help defray living expenses.

Many graduate students and research staff will also be allowed on campus for the fall. But to limit the density of the campus population, most administrative staff who can work remotely will continue to do so. And everyone with access to campus buildings will be required to comply with an extensive set of public health regulations, with campus health conditions tracked closely through a variety of data.

These and other details regarding the fall semester were announced today in a letter to the MIT community from President L. Rafael Reif.

Developed through a careful analysis of health conditions and logistics, engagement with government officials, and extensive feedback from across its community, the Institute’s approach will advance its mission of experiential education and innovative research on its Cambridge campus — albeit in modified form due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has placed populations at risk around the globe.

Today’s news builds upon President Reif’s June 17 announcement that MIT will offer a traditional two-semester academic year in 2020-21, with adjusted start and end dates. While instruction will be online for undergraduates away from campus, for those on campus there will be a combination of online and in-person instruction. Faculty and administrators across the Institute are striving to deliver outstanding remote learning in the fall.

“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,” President Reif wrote in today’s letter.

“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,” the letter said.

A strong framework of safety protocols will undergird MIT’s activities for all students, faculty, and staff on campus, including required regular Covid-19 testing and a contact tracing system, mandatory mask-wearing, daily health attestations, and limited access to campus buildings. MIT has drawn upon some of its academic strengths to make these systems feasible — including use of the Broad Institute to process Covid-19 test results, and the rapid development of the COVID Pass system, by MIT’s Information Systems and Technology staff, through which community members will provide health attestations.

The plans represent a collective effort by the MIT administration, faculty, students, and staff. Many working groups have studied specific issues in detail, drawing on Covid-19 data and a close knowledge of campus operations. The Institute has also undertaken extensive community engagement, soliciting feedback through virtual town halls, charrettes (focused discussions), and surveys; a majority of MIT’s undergraduates responded to one such survey within 36 hours this spring.  

“To solve any problem at MIT, especially one as complicated as how to reopen the campus this fall, we look to our community members — especially our students, staff, and faculty — to provide us insights,” says Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, and co-lead of the Team 2020 working group that has played a leading role in developing plans for the coming academic year. “Ultimately, we have faced a difficult challenge — how to develop the best response, given many trade-offs, a complex education and research enterprise, and a very uncertain future trajectory for the pandemic — while maximizing engagement to shape our understanding and our choices.”

Certainly, while MIT’s core functions will continue, many things on campus will be different this fall. MIT’s famed Infinite Corridor will not be packed with people; there will be no tourists taking photos inside the Stata Center; the Institute will not host any large events. But in order to invite additional members of its community back to campus, MIT’s plan for fall 2020 will include the following elements.

The plan for undergraduates on campus

Under the fall 2020 plan, the fraction of MIT’s roughly 4,500 undergraduates who will spend the semester in campus housing was determined by the number of undergraduates MIT can house in private rooms, as well as its capacity for regular testing and contact tracing — and the need to take a prudent, cautious approach about both the uncertainties about the pandemic and the Institute’s operations as it seeks to execute all aspects of its safety controls.

Seniors and undergraduates who cannot reasonably study elsewhere — for example, those who are unable to return home, those who have home environments that significantly impair remote learning, those who have no other place to live, or those for whom being at home would be unsafe — will be given priority in MIT’s decisions on invitations back to campus for the fall. MIT’s leadership currently hopes to be able to host first-year students, sophomores, and juniors on campus for the spring semester; crucially, by early 2021, additional housing will come online following the completion of construction and renovation projects.

Most undergraduate instruction will take place online this fall, with on-campus students receiving supplementary in-person teaching in small groups, when possible, such as for lab work, design studios, project-based classes, and performance-based courses.

The semester will have an altered schedule, starting one week earlier than usual. Classes will begin on Sept. 1, and undergraduates will depart campus before Thanksgiving to minimize back-and-forth travel during the busy holiday period. Undergraduates will continue classes online after Thanksgiving, and final exams will occur Dec. 14-18. MIT currently expects its 2021 Independent Activities Period (IAP) to be remote, although there may be some variations by program.

Other effects of Covid-19 on the fall semester will include:

  • Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) facilities will not be open this fall, but residents will be engaged in virtual community-building, and MIT will continue to support them.
  • Campus buildings will only be open to those students invited back to campus for the fall semester. Other students living in the Boston area — whether at a family home, or in off-campus housing — will not be able to access campus buildings.
  • Athletics will be suspended for the fall semester.
  • To foster physical distancing, residence hall kitchens will not be available for cooking; meal plans will be mandatory for undergraduates living on campus. However, MIT will offer a 40 percent reduction in the cost of meal plans for the fall semester.

Research, graduate students, and staff

Most MIT research labs reopened in mid-June, initially with minimal in-person staffing. However, returning for lab work is voluntary, and personnel must wear masks, use personal protective equipment (PPE), file daily health attestations, and work in physically distanced settings.

“We are thrilled to have over 3,000 of our researchers back in their labs and research spaces working on in-person experiments that require campus facilities,” stated Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president of research, and Tyler Jacks, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and chair of an Institute committee on restoring research functions, in a June 18 letter. “Many in our community are now able to resume their data collection and continue developing innovative solutions to address the most daunting challenges facing the world.”

However, Zuber and Jacks added, “Our community’s ability to continue to work as a team and adhere to the established protocols will be critical.”

Many of MIT’s roughly 7,000 graduate students will also be permitted on campus in the fall. Graduate student residence halls on the MIT campus will open at about 85 percent of total capacity, to create physical distancing.

Many MIT staff members will continue to work remotely in the fall, to help limit the on-campus population. Other staff, such as facilities workers and campus police, have continued to work onsite throughout the pandemic.

“I am grateful for the dedication of the many staff members across MIT who have continued to come to campus during this pandemic to safeguard and care for the campus and the MIT community,” says Tony Sharon, acting deputy executive vice president, and co-lead of the Team 2020 working group. “I also want to recognize the many staff members who have continued to work tirelessly from home, to enable the ramp-up of critical research activities, and to extend our online teaching and work-from-home capabilities.”

While many services will be handled remotely, they will still be available, during what will likely be a period of uncertainty for many students.

“Whether students are on campus or among the large contingent of students working off-campus, we want everyone to know that MIT’s network of support resources is available whenever and wherever it is needed,” says Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life. “We know life on campus will be very different for everyone this fall, and I encourage any student who feels the need to reach out to connect with us. We are here for you.”

Extensive safety protocols

In order to make on-campus education and research possible, MIT is implementing an extensive series of protocols to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

All students, faculty, and staff will be tested when they arrive on campus. MIT will also be conducting frequent testing and screening. Community members will have to file a daily health attestation to help identify those who may have Covid-19 symptoms. Wearing masks on campus will continue to be a requirement. Compliance with these protocols will be a critical part of campus life.

Mindful of privacy issues, the Institute’s Legal Ethical Equity (LEE) Group for MIT Campus Planning has established guidelines limiting the use of this collected health data. Access to that information is highly restricted, and a “sunset” provision stipulates the data will be deleted once they are no longer operationally necessary.

MIT is enacting numerous measures around building use. Campus buildings will have single, restricted entrances. Institute planners have divided campus into discipline-based research “clusters,” with community members accessing only the buildings where their education and research activities occur. MIT has even created a faculty-led working group studying room ventilation, which has been developing guidelines for use in the fall.

“We all must accept that campus space will be akin to a precious resource for learning and research throughout the remainder of 2020,” Zuber said in a letter to the graduate student community in May, co-authored with MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Nelson, and Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet.

The letter continued: “In order to be able to share in the benefits of this resource, we will need to commit to looking out for other members of the community who are learning, researching, and working alongside us. This means that wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing, contributing to good hygiene practices, and getting used to operating within defined campus spaces will be our ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future.”

Detailed study while engaging the community

Soon after MIT ramped down on-campus activity in mid-March, the Institute began examining the challenges of bringing its community back in a phased fashion. That process has consisted of detailed study of specific issues, often with faculty applying domain expertise, as well as extensive community input.

MIT has also been engaging with government officials who have developed outlines for reopening. Specifically, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has created reopening guidelines for higher education institutions that emphasize four key principles, the first of which is to “protect the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and people in surrounding communities.”

“The Commonwealth has allowed higher-education institutions to develop unique reopening plans that best fit their needs and capabilities, as long as we adhere to strict public health and safety protocols,” says Director of Emergency Management Suzanne Blake. “We will continue to monitor and adhere to state and local guidance to ensure MIT is contributing to the reopening of Massachusetts in a way that is both productive and safe.”

MIT has also staged 11 town hall-style events, including two for the entire community, with the rest focused on students, research, and faculty communities within the Institute; conducted 69 charrettes, with 425 participants; and conducted six detailed community surveys, with significant response levels. For instance, about 3,600 undergraduates, or 79 percent, responded to a survey tailored to them about potential reopening options. A community-wide survey received about 900 full responses, 900 partial responses, and 27,000 comments. Additionally, 17 groups — including parents of MIT students — held self-guided discussions that provided more input for the administration.

“Through surveys, design charrettes, and ongoing conversations with student leaders, we sought to understand what’s important,” Waitz says. “We have been as transparent as possible around our processes, data, sources of expertise, and constraints, from the physical constraints on campus to the availability of testing.”

At the same time, the Team 2020 working group has helped oversee an array of nine focused working groups, which have studied different aspects of campus activities. The Team 2020 group also led regular conference calls in which the community members developing the reopening plans could provide feedback, updates, and propose new questions.

Team 2020, focused on the 2020-21 academic year, is one of three broad efforts to study MIT’s operations in relation to Covid-19. The MIT Covid-19 Response System is developing ways to use research and real-time data to support campus operations and decision making; and Task Force 2021 and Beyond, led by Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning, and Rick Danheiser, chair of the faculty, is examining the new challenges and opportunities that may face MIT in a post-Covid-19 world.

All told, MIT has attempted to rigorously examine the advantages and disadvantages of many proposed ideas for the coming academic year. Other formats the Institute considered included holding three semesters, with all students attending two out of the three; waiting until 2021 to start the next semester; keeping all instruction online, with no undergraduates invited back for the fall; and inviting all undergraduates back to campus for the fall.  

Ultimately, the modified two-semester format, with a blend of in-person and online learning, was the approach judged by the Institute’s leadership — as well as the many other community members who offered input — as most feasible and safest for the MIT community. And while campus activities, including this plan, will always be contingent on health and safety conditions, the MIT community now has the benefit of a clear blueprint for the start of the 2020-21 academic year.

The decisions announced today, President Reif wrote in his letter, “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.”

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