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Town halls let students “Solve for Fall”

Student representatives, heads of house, and other MIT leaders came together to answer students’ questions and discuss a safe, gradual return to campus life.
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On May 13, student leaders, heads of house, and the MIT Division of Student Life (DSL) hosted two separate town halls — one for graduate students and one for undergraduates — to engage the student community in identifying and implementing possible solutions to the complex community problem posed by Covid-19. As organizers wrote in their May 4 invitation to students, “We need to ensure that whatever approach we take for the fall, we prioritize and protect community health and capitalize on MIT’s greatest strengths and traditions by creating student learning and research experiences that are intellectually engaging and personally meaningful.”

Graduate student town hall

A panel of MIT senior leaders provided updates on graduate student life and plans for the fall during the graduate student mini town hall, sponsored by the Graduate Student Council (GSC), graduate heads of house, and DSL. The webcast event, which featured questions submitted and upvoted by graduate students, attracted more than 500 viewers.

Madeleine Sutherland, GSC president, welcomed the participants and, along with Naomi Carton, head of house for Westgate, opened the program. “Even while we’re gathering over Zoom, there’s a need for grad student voices to be heard so much in the coming months, and it’s our hope that tonight’s town hall just kicks off a broader set of discussions across campus,” Sutherland said.

Moderator Matthew Bauer, senior director of communications in DSL, asked the panelists questions submitted to the We Solve for Fall idea bank, as well as crowdsourced questions submitted during the hour-long event. Topics centered on preparing the campus for resumed research and instruction, financial concerns, issues impacting international students, and housing.

Vice President for Research Maria Zuber shared plans to return graduate students to labs and ramp up research. For the foreseeable future, she said, research that can be done remotely will continue to be remote. Meanwhile, a ramp-up pilot is beginning for currently-approved research personnel in buildings 76, E17/18/19/25, and 68, employing measures such as restricted access, social distancing, enhanced cleaning, required face coverings, ID swipes, and health checks.

“The question we are being asked most is what steps are we taking to keep people safe in MIT labs,” Zuber said. She stressed that, even as buildings are opened, “coming back is voluntary.”

Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet addressed the use of academic spaces when students return. “Labs and classrooms will feel very much like we are used to, except that the population density will be lower on purpose,” she said. Safety measures will likely include face coverings and IDs, and access to buildings will be restricted to defined portals. In addition, her team developed an inventory of campus learning spaces and their capacity to allow instructors and departments, labs, and centers to determine how best to use those resources.

“It’s not that it’s an easy logistical problem, but we understand the principles [involved],” said Van Vliet, including educational excellence, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning. “We’re figuring that out, layer by layer.” Reflecting after the town hall, she noted that being on campus these days — observing the MIT guidance already in place on distancing and face coverings and building access at specific campus locations — requires more thought and planning for the individual. “It is helpful to be aware that this takes some practice and patience, but soon feels comfortable. This experience highlights the many interdependencies among the wider MIT community on campus, and the great teams who take pride in making that operation possible.”

Questions about financial support for graduate students were fielded by Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, who said that several financial resources are already in place, and others are being considered. The recommended stipend level increase of 2.9 percent has been approved, health insurance rates will not increase in the upcoming academic year, and graduating students will receive extended eligibility for the health insurance plan. In addition, the Office of Graduate Education offers emergency hardship funds, and a Summer Opportunities Resources web page has been created to help students find employment opportunities.

“The problem that’s on a lot of people’s minds are the longer-term things,” in the fall and beyond, Waitz noted, like degree extensions or losing industrial sponsorship funding. “Those issues are very much front-of-mind for the provost, the chancellor, the school deans, and now that we’ve gotten the processes in place for the immediate needs of the summer, that’s what we’ll turn our attention to.”

David Elwell, director and associate dean of the International Students Office (ISO), provided updates for international graduate students. “We’re getting a lot of questions regarding maintenance of status for students who had to return home,” he said. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has suspended its temporary absence rule for students outside the United States for more than five months. Elwell’s office can offer guidance for issues like maintaining appropriate employment authorization and obtaining visas as consulates slowly reopen. He encouraged students to visit the ISO website or contact their international student advisor directly for more information.

Questions about graduate housing were top-of-mind during the mini town hall, as well. Senior Associate Dean for Housing & Residential Services (HRS) David Friedrich shared a three-staged approach his office is developing for students who want to return to on-campus graduate housing, as well as steps being implemented to ensure students’ safety. The stages are based on unit type and overall population density, beginning with private apartments, then multi-occupant apartments, and finally dormitory-style housing.

Friedrich noted that, because of the construction moratorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the timeline for the new Graduate Tower at Site 4 occupancy is uncertain. Despite the delayed opening, however, HRS will work with students to accommodate their housing needs in the interim.

Friedrich thanked students who remained on campus for their goodwill during a challenging time. “The feedback we’ve been receiving from residents has been very helpful as we work to understand what the experience is like living on campus, and it helps to inform our planning as we look ahead to the fall.”

As the program drew to a close, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson urged students to continue to stay involved by working with the GSC and contributing thoughts via the idea bank. “The only way we’re going to figure this out is to figure it out together. I appreciate all the good input tonight and really look forward to future discussions,” she said.

Undergraduate student town hall

More than 400 undergraduates and community members tuned into a webcast panel of faculty, student leaders, and staff to discuss how MIT might open for undergraduates this fall. During the town hall, co-sponsored by the Undergraduate Association (UA), the Dormitory Council (DormCon), Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association, and the Living Group Council, participants submitted and upvoted questions live to let panelists know exactly what was most on their minds. Some questions submitted were posed in other forums, and answers are posted MIT’s Covid-19 FAQ.

During introductory remarks, John E. Fernández '85, professor of architecture and head of house for Baker House, shared a range of options that have been proposed for the fall. “That spectrum includes, on the one hand, no one on campus, everyone online in the fall, and on the other side, on the other end of that spectrum, everybody back on campus,” Fernández said. “It's very likely that between these two extremes, there will be some intermediate solution to the fall.”

About engaging students on planning for the fall, Fernández announced a series of charettes on May 26, 27, and 28, followed by smaller group discussions in June. Outgoing UA President Mahi Elango and Interfraternity Council President Nico Salinas reiterated the importance of student engagement in decision-making about the fall.

Raul Radovitzky, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and head of house for McCormick Hall, shared three values developed by heads of house to guide thinking about the fall: Students need to have a meaningful, enriching on-campus educational experience; the residential experience is an invaluable part of an MIT education; and MIT trusts student leaders to engage with MIT to respond to Covid-19 and its impact on residential life.

Peko Hosoi, associate dean of the School of Engineering, shared her team’s research on how the virus spreads and what interventions and policies can help. “[T]esting is not just useful for identifying people who are sick and figuring out what kind of care they need,” she said, citing research from the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society COVID-19 Collaboration (Isolat). “[Testing] is also one of our best levers for controlling the spread of the infection.”

Cecilia Stuopis, director of MIT Medical, discussed testing and contact tracing as well as the importance of essentials such as handwashing, face coverings, and social distancing. MIT is considering digital contact tracing while weighing the technology’s potential impact on privacy. She said that plans for mass testing on campus would be influenced by the quality and speed of tests available at the time. “We want to make sure they are reliable and that we can get good, solid answers back on them in a timely fashion.”

Stuopis also addressed potential disruptions by a future spike in Covid-19 cases. “I think that we have to be open and honest that (future disruption) is certainly a possibility, but it's not something we're going to be able to predict in May 2020,” she said. Fernández added, “We want to be prepared, at the very least, with the protocols, the prepositioned assets, the procedures, so that if we do need to do that again (ramp down), we can do it in a very organized way, and the community is aware that that might be something that might have to happen.”

David Friedrich from HRS talked about the steps that MIT is taking to promote safety in residence halls and in fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs). Based on guidance from MIT Medical, MIT Emergency Management, and Institute leaders, HRS and stakeholders are developing a framework for managing residential spaces that is tailored to on-campus residences and FSILGs. DormCon President Aiyedun Uzamere added that DormCon and HRS are working to sustain the special community connections within residences.

Friedrich added that decisions for how to reopen on-campus housing will be influenced by several factors, including the approach to academics. He added that HRS is working to ensure that any student who plans to return under the fall academic guidance will have a place to live. Friedrich also said that MIT would make every effort to reopen Burton Conner, the undergraduate residence hall slated for renewal, by fall 2022 as previously scheduled. Lastly, Friedrich cited the valuable partnership between MIT and the FSILG system, which houses about 1,000 students. Salinas from the IFC observed that the impact of decisions about the fall on FSILGs must be considered in a different context from the effects on residence halls.

On leaves of absence or delayed matriculation, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz said that MIT may seek commitments from students about their intentions to be at MIT in the fall earlier than usual. Extra time would allow for more planning around housing needs. With regard to financial aid and tuition, Waitz said that it is too early to tell how Covid-19 might affect the cost of attending MIT. “Right now, our focus is really squarely on supporting our grad and undergrad population now and throughout the summer and really deciding what option best enables us to deliver on MIT's mission through the pandemic,” he said. Discussions of potential financial adjustments will follow decisions about the fall.

Uzamere suggested that students get involved in student government to stay engaged in decision-making beyond Covid. “I encourage you to be active with these branches of student government, DormCon, UA, IFC, Panhel, because that's why we're here,” he said. “We exist to be an extension of you that can directly interface with administrators.”

Nelson followed up on Uzamere’s comments and concluded the town hall by citing the ongoing need for collaborative problem-solving. “What I really liked about Aiyedun's comment is that this whole town hall, this Solve for Fall exercise, the Idea Bank, that was born out of a discussion with student leaders who had asked that, ‘Even if we don't have answers, can you at least share the question so we all know what MIT is grappling with?’ And so that's how this all came about,” she said. “We will absolutely listen to you, but it's going to be a tough year for all of us because it's uncertain. And if there's any group I want to be in this with, it's the group from MIT because this is a community who really does know how to work hard and think analytically about difficult problems.”

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