Two ‘mini’ town halls held with students to discuss fall scenarios

Students invited to participate in ‘community charettes’ to design solutions for the fall

Two “mini” town halls, one for undergraduate and one for graduate students, were held May 13 to discuss MIT’s options for the fall.  

Administrators, heads of house, and student leaders discussed possible fall scenarios, financial aid, health concerns, ramping up research, options for international students, and potential housing changes. Students were also invited to participate in future discussions surrounding the fall semester.

Baker Head of House John Fernandez ’85 led the undergraduate town hall. Graduate Student Council President Madeleine Sutherland G and Naomi Carton, associate dean of graduate residential life, led the graduate town hall. Matt Bauer, senior director of communications and special assistant to the dean of student life, moderated both town halls.

Fall scenarios

Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz said during the graduate town hall that the curricular scenarios being considered include a full return to campus with socially-distanced or remote teaching, “a 50/50 scenario [for undergraduates] where half of them are on campus for half of the first semester,” “a three semester model,” “a delayed start,” or “fully online.”

When asked whether the return of graduate students would be prioritized due to lower risk housing situations, Waitz said that “bringing graduate students back and scaling up the research enterprise… [goes] along with inviting grad students back to Cambridge.”

For fall scenarios in which only a portion of undergraduates return, Fernandez said that “the decision of who’s on campus is going to be driven by the risk balanced by the educational value.” 

Waitz said that student input would be important in determining who should be on campus during a half-semester or trimester, citing the “irreplaceable” experience of an on-campus first semester for first-year students and the possibility for upperclassmen to have a “jumpstart on summer employment” if not on campus during the later semesters.

Fernandez also suggested a possible scenario in which first years and seniors live on campus with “pods or virtual families.” In this scenario, small groups of students would live together in pods with relaxed social distancing. Pod members would not be allowed to interact with other pods. Fernandez said that with many first years taking GIRs and seniors taking “capstone classes,” it could be possible to form pods from those communities.

Professor Peko Hosoi said that the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) is working on modeling the pod structures and preparing “to test different ideas that come in from the community.”

Fernandez said that based on meetings with faculty, “there is a very strong prioritization of learning that requires physical interactions to be on campus.” He continued by saying that classes that can be taught online will be online, with project-based classes prioritized for in-person instruction.

A final decision regarding the fall will be announced by late June or early July. “The more time we have to analyze and assess and understand and to collect information from this rapidly-changing world, the better off we are when making those decisions,” Waitz said.

Undergraduate leaves of absence

Waitz said the Institute “tends to be very flexible” with the possibility of undergraduates taking a leave of absence. He said he expects that students will be asked for their commitments earlier “so that we can effectively plan housing” because a larger-than-usual number of students might be interested in taking a leave of absence in the fall.

When asked whether undergraduates considering a leave of absence in an all-virtual scenario would be guaranteed housing upon return, David Friedrich, senior associate dean for housing and residential services (HRS) said “it’s a reasonable thought that we would continue to guarantee housing.” He added that when campus is “fully back and running,” HRS will “do whatever it can” to ensure that students have the option to live on campus.

Undergraduate housing

Friedrich said during the undergraduate town hall that HRS is “developing a framework for ways to effectively manage residential spaces, with the understanding that specific solutions really need to be tailored to the variety of settings where students live.”

Friedrich described the policies currently in place in on-campus emergency graduate and undergraduate housing. “We are continuing to evaluate the effectiveness of these policies and have been gathering input and feedback from the students who are living in emergency housing,” Friedrich said.

The input will be used to consider “potential changes or additions” to reduce risk to residential communities in the fall. Friedrich said that HRS is reviewing how common areas, such as laundry rooms, elevators, and gyms, will operate. 

Friedrich also said that HRS has worked with house operations staff to clean high-traffic areas within residence halls, provide on-campus students with face coverings, and populate public spaces with hand sanitizer and signs about proper handwashing.

Friedrich said that HRS does not yet know whether Burton Conner will be open in the fall. Currently, BC is being used as a “support residence” for students who have contracted COVID-19. “We will have a continued need for that in the fall,” Friedrich said, though a final decision has not been made about “where that will be happening.”

Friedrich said that HRS is committed to communicating with BC’s community and sustaining the timeline of BC reopening in Fall 2022.

Because fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) have different “living constraints” from dorms, FSILG President Nico Salinas ’21 said that considerations would be different for the reopening of FSILGs.

Dormitory Council (DormCon) President Aiyedun Uzamere ’20 advised undergraduates to maintain their communities’ existing “family support structure” and to “try to incorporate the first years.” Uzamere said that DormCon is working with the Division of Student Life and HRS to facilitate these connections.

Graduate housing

Friedrich said during the graduate town hall that HRS is “currently finalizing a timeline and a process for students who would like to return to graduate housing.” HRS anticipates lower housing density than in previous years. 

The process is a phased approach based on housing type and population density. Friedrich said that students living in private apartments, family housing, one-bedroom housing, or an efficiency will be able to return as early as the week of May 18. Students may return to multi-occupant apartments in mid-June, although all dates are “subject to change.” The third phase, the timing of which is unclear, would allow returns to “dormitory-style housing” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

Students who would like to collect their belongings from graduate housing can contact their house operations manager to do so in a safe manner. 

In addition, HRS is “making sure that there are no termination penalties for current residents of on-campus graduate housing due to travel or visa restrictions or changes to MIT academic or research programs.” New students who cancel their housing assignments “due to reasons associated with COVID-19” will face no penalty, Friedrich said.

Friedrich said that a construction moratorium is in place for the new graduate residence at Site 4, which was scheduled to open this fall. If there is a delay in the opening, “students will remain in their current assignments” and will be accommodated until they can move to Site 4.

COVID-19 testing and contact tracing

MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis ’90 said during the undergraduate town hall that MIT Medical has been able to conduct testing at “a high level” since early April.

Stuopis said that MIT Medical has moved “very recently” from the nasopharyngeal swab to a less invasive nostril swab to collect samples for testing and is “gearing up to be able to test up to a thousand people a day.”

MIT Medical is working with mechanical engineering professor Martin Culpepper PhD ’00 “to outfit a testing trailer” outside of MIT Medical to replace the tent currently being used for testing, Stuopis said. 

Hosoi said the IDSS has analyzed the proportion of the asymptomatic community that needs to be tested, adding that the Broad Institute has increased its capability to process the tests.

Stuopis said that there is a constraint on the number of tests available, and the IDSS is working to determine how to prioritize who to test, such as those at high risk for the disease or those most likely to spread it.

MIT Medical is “bumping up” its staff to be able to conduct contact tracing — which Stuopis called “the most critical public health offering that we have” — by contacting those who have tested positive for the virus, discovering who they may have had contact with, testing those people, and asking those people to self-isolate.

Stuopis said that MIT Medical does not currently have antibody testing capabilities, but she “suspect[s] that it will be part of our offering in the future.”

When asked about the possibility of an outbreak on campus or a second wave impacting the spring semester, Stuopis said that “there are too many variables” to make a prediction.

Stuopis said that MIT Medical is able “to do widespread testing for many members of our community every day of the week” which “could make a difference in our ability to keep everyone on campus.” However, she said that MIT has “no control over” transmission in Cambridge, Boston, or other nearby universities.

Fernandez said that it is important to have the “agility” to “scale down rapidly” in the case of an outbreak or second wave or to “ramp up really rapidly” in the case of a vaccine.

Financial and academic support

Waitz said that tuition discounts have not yet been considered for graduate or undergraduate students. “We’re in a challenging financial situation, and we’re trying to do the very best we can to support everyone through that, and the extent to which there will be changes to tuition and discounts is really a topic we’ll get to once we decide how best to position MIT for the fall and likely into the spring.”

In addition, the provost has been working with deans to provide funding to schools to support students, Waitz said. Students may also look to a summer resources page for paid and unpaid opportunities to “replace lost funding and internships.” 

When asked about financial support to graduate students, Waitz said he was “pleased to get the recommended stipend level increase of 2.9% approved” and “pleased that the health insurance rates aren’t going to increase.” 

He also said that administrators have worked over the last six months to better advertise the existence of the graduate emergency hardship fund. Waitz said that Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate education, and her team have been “working in overload” to respond to student needs. 

Waitz said that he plans to meet with the organizers of a letter from graduate students demanding COVID-19 relief.

“The problem that’s on a lot of people’s minds are the longer-term things” such as needing a degree extension or potential loss of funding and industrial sponsorship, Waitz said. “Now that we’ve got in place processes for the immediate needs of the summer, that’s what we will turn our intention to.”

Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said MIT has created a new “research specialist” position for students who have defended their thesis but do not have postdoc funding. This new position will allow students “some increase in salary” for “some period of time.”

Ramping up research

Zuber provided information on plans for graduate students to return to labs. In anticipation of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s May 18 reopening plan, Zuber presented a ramp-up pilot “using designated personnel currently approved to be on campus” in buildings 76, E17, E18, E19, E25, and 68.

Beginning May 18, those approved to enter the buildings will go through a single first floor portal, socially-distanced and wearing face masks. “There’s going to be a table in the lobby with a friendly staff person who’s going to swipe your ID to verify that you have permission to come to this building,” Zuber said.

MIT will “bring more people back in the lab consistent with the guidelines” as “soon as we are able to,” Zuber said. In addition to swiping IDs, the plan will later implement a health app to check for symptoms and possibly monitor temperature.

Zuber said that research advisors are being asked to “develop detailed-plans for how they would prioritize bringing people back.” Zuber said that returning to labs is “voluntary,” and researchers should have discussions with advisors about whether they feel comfortable returning.

Responding to concerns that graduate students would feel “coerced” to return for their research, Zuber said that for a person to be approved to be in an MIT lab, they must have a conversation with the lab’s principal investigator and confirm that they feel comfortable returning. 

According to a survey conducted by Zuber, 10% of lab personnel currently on campus who responded to the survey “felt pressured/coerced” to return to their labs. Zuber said that for students who feel this way, “there will be people to reach out to to talk about it.”

Zuber also described precautions being taken to ensure the safety of lab personnel, including extra cleaning and social distancing, that will be extended to all research buildings on campus.

International students

David Elwell, associate dean and director of the International Students Office (ISO), said during the graduate town hall that continuing international students will maintain their status even if they are off campus for more than five months, suspending the former five month temporary absence rule.

Elwell said that an Institute working group and several offices are reviewing visa, payroll, and tax issues to allow students working as RAs or TAs to continue their roles remotely or abroad. 

For students concerned about working or pursuing internships in the fall term, the ISO will continue to process employment authorizations such as F-1 and J-1 visas. Elwell said that students must maintain their visa status if they are working for a U.S. employer, working for an employer that receives funding from a U.S. source, or performing any employment activity in the U.S. 

The ISO will continue to provide updates on application procedures for students performing post-completion work. Elwell said that the Optional Practical Training authorization currently requires students to be in the U.S. when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services receives the application. Elwell said that universities have asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for accomodations.

For international students who are unable to leave their home countries or access visa services, Elwell said that universities have spoken to the State Department and that the visa services suspension, started March 20, is still in place. Elwell said that some students have been able to schedule visa interview appointments for mid-June and some consulates are opening as the cities’ restrictions are lifted.

Elwell recommended that students go to the U.S. embassy and consulate website to see the scheduling procedures. He also advised students to schedule a visa interview appointment even for dates later than their planned return to campus, since emergency visa applications are only possible if an interview is already reserved.

Elwell said that even students with a valid visa may not be able to enter the U.S. due to travel restrictions by an executive order still applicable to 13 countries. 

The current COVID-19 travel bans to most European countries, China, Iran, Canada, and Mexico remain in place. The restrictions between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico only apply to non-essential travel — travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature as defined by the DHS —  and thus do not apply to student visa holders partaking.

Elwell said that students should contact their international student advisor with questions and will still be able to continue their studies remotely in the fall until they can reenter the U.S.

Learning space allocation

Krystyn Van Vliet PhD ’02, associate provost and co-chair of the committee for renovation and space planning, said during the graduate town hall that the population density of labs and classrooms will be lowered in the fall. Buildings will have specific access portals rather than general-use entrances. 

Lab-component classes “might meet less often or range differently or in a slightly different lab space,” but students will still be able to have socially-distanced “hands-on time with colleagues and instructors,” Van Vliet said.

Van Vliet also said that the Institute has determined “a physically-distanced capacity” for all the learning spaces on campus and developed an inventory of how many rooms are available for lab-based, performance-based, or project-based learning.

Future discussions

Fernandez suggested that students visit the IDSS’s Isolat page to see data regarding the virus and submit ideas for fall reopening to the We Solve for Fall idea bank.

Additionally, Fernandez said that Team 2020 has developed an engagement plan and will host a series of four two-hour workshops called “charettes,” which Fernandez described as “an intensive design session.” The charettes will begin the week of May 18 and continue through the end of May.

The first three charettes will each focus on one of the three fall scenarios (all online, all on campus, in between), and the final charette will be open to an alternative scenario. Fernandez encouraged students to join these sessions because the charettes’ success is “entirely based on the intensity of participation.”

Whitney Zhang contributed reporting.