Barnhart discusses COVID-19 response, next steps at faculty meeting

Zuber: if necessary, MIT could ramp down research in ‘less than a week’

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 hosted a discussion on MIT’s COVID-19 response during the faculty meeting Sept. 16.

Barnhart began by outlining the numerous groups formed to address COVID-19, including the MIT COVID-19 planning team and Team 2020, which focused on fall semester planning. She also discussed the Legal, Ethical, Equity Committee for Campus Planning formed in April.

“As we were thinking about all the changes that we needed to make, it became clear that we really needed the advice of a group of experts who could think about the legal, ethical and equity impacts of what we were doing,” Barnhart said.

Throughout the process, MIT hosted several town halls and meetings to gather community input and communicate information.

Barnhart said that she believes MIT has “done really well” in “extensive engagement with many members of the community,” which enabled its “necessary,” “quick decision-making process.”

Barnhart said that “the amount of effort we have seen from our students and the wonderful partnership that we have had with them” was “just amazing.”

After MIT developed a plan for the fall, teams created for testing ramp-up, positive test monitoring, decision-making, and emergency operations worked together to ensure the measures were operational.

Though MIT has executed extensive efforts for this semester, Barnhart emphasized that there is still more to do. MIT’s spring response planning is underway, and a virtual Independent Activities Period will be held in January.

“The really good thing is we've learned a lot from our planning for the fall. We'll learn more as we move through the fall, but this spring is going to pose additional challenges, including many more undergraduates who have been invited to campus,” Barnhart said.

After Barnhart’s presentation, faculty members discussed MIT’s more conservative approach towards COVID-19, as well as whether facilities would be equipped to ramp up or ramp down functionality if needed. 

MIT “did a gradual ramp up so that we wouldn't overstress campus facilities [and] worked really hard to walk before we run, so to speak,” Vice President for Research Maria Zuber said. “Because of that, we haven't had to ramp back down.”

Zuber added that labs are currently at 50% capacity, but MIT hopes to “soon” bring back 100% of the researchers who need to work on campus, while keeping an eye on COVID-19 testing results.

“Both in terms of the number of tests being offered and the extremely low positivity rate, we're extremely optimistic that we're going to be able to do that soon and in fact, we're in the process of doing a poll of some of the larger labs to figure out,” Zuber said.

However, MIT also has plans in case a research ramp-down is required. “We ramped down in less than a week in March,” but with this experience, ramp-down would now take “less than a week,” Zuber said.

Krystyn Van Vliet PhD ’02, associate provost and co-chair of the committee for renovation and space planning, said that MIT’s “conservative” approach to opening residential life could be useful in the event of a ramp-down, citing MIT’s lower-density housing, MIT Medical’s frequent testing, socially-distanced meal preparation and service, and the residential pod system. “If we have to ramp down, the beauty of our plan is that students can isolate in their room. They all have their own room, and they have a lot of elbow room.”

Barnhart added, “I think it's wonderful that we're sitting here today and seeing what we're seeing. But I think we have to be careful not to think that we've got the problem solved and we will continue to be as successful as we are today without continuing to be very, very diligent and, in some ways, cautious in our approach.”