Campus Life community immunity

‘Today is a strange day’ — me, Tuesday

A somewhat coherent stream of consciousness on MIT’s COVID-19 policies

Tuesday evening, I asked The Tech’s editor in chief if I could write a campus life article to share my experience of recent events. Now, I realize, this request was more for myself than anyone else — I have not yet fully processed all that has happened, and I hope that writing will allow me to clear my thoughts. To de-densify my mind, if you will. 

On Tuesday, President L. Rafael Reif notified the MIT undergraduate community that we would all have to move out by March 17, seven days into the future and seven days prior to spring break. Tuesday felt as if it was all-at-once, and yet too slow, like watching a gallon of milk slowly fall onto the floor. Slow enough to understand gravity’s work, and yet too fast to prevent the impending explosion. 

COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, China in December. On Jan. 21, the first case in the U.S. was confirmed. On Feb. 1, the first official case in Massachusetts was confirmed. 

For a month, nothing much changed. MIT administrators whom I spoke to said that they were very much occupied by the issue and working hard to create emergency plans, but that risk remained low on campus. Large quantities of Purell hand sanitizer dispensers were distributed around campus, the only sign of what was to come. 

On Thursday, March 5, three Biogen employees were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 following a conference. Although the conference occurred in Boston, Biogen’s headquarters are in Kendall Square, MIT’s backyard. My level of concern increased. 

That evening, Reif emailed the MIT community with a variety of new policies, including a ban on MIT-related international travel and a ban on in-person events of over 150 people. After much confusion, it became clear that CPW was canceled. 

This was the first real shock to many of us: that something that each year we looked forward to planning and running and attending and was so regular and expected could simply be whisked away in a single email. It was understandable, of course. Hordes of students and parents arriving from all over the world, potentially bringing or taking a highly transmissible disease with them, and multiplying the density of residencies, would be unbearable. No one I knew felt the decision was wrong, but simply being correct did not make it any less devastating. 

Things were relatively quiet for a couple of days. Student groups scurried to cancel or modify events. A petition circled around asking for MIT to take more action against the on-campus spread of coronavirus. My lovely mother mailed me many emergency supplies, including a Costco box of 18 packs of delicious Kraft mac & cheese. Many of us questioned whether we should keep or cancel our spring break trip plans; I, and many other friends, resolved that we would have to stay on campus. But for the most part, people resumed worrying about psets and upcoming midterms. 

On Monday, March 9, rumors circulated amongst friends that classes might be canceled. Soon after, I was forwarded an email from the physics department stating that MIT was banning class meetings larger than 150. Screenshots of the Office of the Vice Chancellor email explaining the new policy circulated. People quickly fired questions on Piazza. 6.006 confirmed that Quiz 1 would still happen; 6.009 decided all exams would be remote. 

Later that day, a message was sent to the Sloan students mailing list that an individual who visited Sloan’s campus was confirmed to have COVID-19. I, along with many of my friends, found it absurd that only the Sloan students mailing list was notified. One of my friends in a Sloan class was concerned that she had just been there earlier that day, and angry that she was not notified because she was not a Sloan major. As one of my fellow Course 14s noted, economics majors spend just as much time in Sloan as Sloan majors do. 

As all this information slowly settled in, my friends and I began speculating what would happen next. How could administration prevent spread in dorms, where students lived so tightly together and shared so many communal spaces? How would dining work, with students all accessing the same food? My speculation on the latter came true, as later that night MIT Dining switched all self-service stations to full service or grab-and-go. I got stir fry, which I almost never get, because all the lines became long anyway. 

On Tuesday, March 10, I woke up to two messages: Amherst College and Harvard University were both sending students home. The thought that MIT might do the same briefly passed over my mind, but it was one of those things that you know could be true but don’t quite believe would really happen. I figured, at worst, I had tickets to go home for spring break. 

Hours later, a screenshot from an email purportedly sent to IFC and UA leaders began circulating. It stated, ominously, that around 1 p.m., MIT would send out an email stating that all classes would be canceled Monday, after Spring Break all classes would be fully online, and all students living in dorms and FSILGs would be required to move out by approximately spring break. 

I began receiving confused messages one by one from different groups: my friends in The Tech, my friends in Simmons Hall, my friends in economics. People began asking where the email came from, whether it was real, whether they would have to buy plane tickets. Just prior to 1 p.m., a friend informed me that he received confirmation that the email was sent. After that, I was forwarded another email that said the information would be delayed. Subsequent pieces of information also flowed in: notes that were purportedly from a meeting between the IFC and administrators, a Facebook post claiming that this was all a hoax.

A large outdoor party appeared on Killian Court, leading to the now-famous photo of a student holding up a large Purell dispenser against a gray Boston skyline, as if he were presenting it as sacrifice or as the one thing that could save us all.

Finally, later at dinner, the official announcement was released. Indeed, classes would be moved online and we would be removed from dorms and FSILGs. However, we had only a week to move out, rather than two. This seemed extremely short, especially considering that Massachusetts requires a 14-day eviction notice. The policy also seemed conflicted, as MIT had just prior stated that community members should avoid international travel, and that domestic travel would all need to be logged, which I interpreted to mean that travel was discouraged.

To further confuse things, I received an email from an instructor to not yet believe the email, and that it would soon be redacted. This proved false.

Students who could not return home could petition to stay, but it was unclear how or on what timeline. Many other questions were unanswered, like whether our rent and dining costs would be returned; how students whose MIT health insurance did not work in their home states or countries would receive healthcare; how much, if any, of our items we would be able to store. 

People reacted to the information in different ways. It initially hit me that I would have to change my flights, pack quickly, and manage to still study for my 6.006 and 6.036 midterms in the midst of it all. (Fortunately, those were later pushed back.)

One friend approached me in tears, regretting being so preoccupied with academics in the past weeks that she did not spend more time with the seniors she had just gotten to know closely this year. 

One friend merely looked at me and said, “This is bonkers.” 

I called my mom, I spoke with more friends, and I called Alaska Airlines which graciously changed my flight. I nearly cried when it finally hit home that I would be suddenly leaving and would not see many of the people here for 6 months, and those that were seniors, likely never again. 

Some partied away into the night. Some had quiet discussions with friends, hoping to make the most of their last moments together. Some panicked about not having a home to return to. 

Everything happened both slowly and all-at-once. 

It is difficult to weigh the costs and benefits of the various policies MIT could have taken. I am no public health expert, and I am sure MIT has consulted many. It is clear that dorm-style living, with shared bathrooms, dining spaces, and lounges, would be incubatory for disease. It is also clear that students could potentially become infected with COVID-19 either here or during their travels and bring the virus to their hometowns. I have no way to conduct this calculus of tradeoffs, and even if I could, I have no clear lines on how the results ought to be weighed. I trust strongly that MIT has made an informed decision. 

Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why some universities, like Harvard and MIT, have chosen to send students home, while others like UC Berkeley and Stanford have allowed students to stay. It is certainly saddening, and I can understand why for some, this feels utterly egregious. 

In all this, I am thankful for the care and understanding that has been shown. I appreciate the teaching staff who have pushed back exams and assignments. I appreciate the house teams and student leaders who have helped — and continue to help — us navigate these confusing times. I appreciate the many alumni and graduate students who have stepped forward to offer storage and housing. If there is anything good about such a distressing period, it is the humanity that it brings out of all of us. 

I am certainly lucky. I do not have classes whose learning experience is dependent on me being physically present in labs. This is not my last semester here. I look forward to going home, to seeing family that I love. I will have slow but reasonable internet access, good healthcare, and an environment that I can focus in. 

This situation has exacerbated the inequalities faced by students on campus. MIT’s resources are currently overloaded. I hope that MIT will properly provide options for the many students who consider this campus their only home.

In the meantime, all I can do is to hope, pray, and help direct my peers to the resources that can support them. I am strongly optimistic. As my mother said to me yesterday, “问题多,可是办法更多” — there are many problems, but there will always be even more solutions.