Planning for a safe and successful fall

August 31, 2020

To the MIT community,

As we stand on the eve of this most unusual academic year, we wanted to take a moment to share the principles underlying our plans for a safe and successful semester.

Our approach is a conservative one:

  • Most instruction is remote, and access to campus is limited.
  • Less than 20% of undergraduate students are in residence at MIT.
  • We are operating our research enterprise at significantly reduced density.
  • Most staff continue to work from home.
  • Ongoing testing is required for those who work, study, or live on campus.
  • We are enforcing strict public health measures across the Institute.

With these measures and more, we hope to manage through Covid time while doing five things: taking measures to reduce possible spread of the virus, caring for our community, fulfilling our learning and research mission, working to find solutions to the pandemic, and continuing to be a strong institution.

This will not be easy, of course, and challenges will confront us. We have spent the summer preparing to face them and to adapt as the situation evolves.

Guided by Science and Common Sense

To enable effective responses, we are monitoring a range of data. This includes everything from positive tests to isolation capacity in our facilities to transmission trends in and around our community and the region.

Through our Covid Pass app and related tools, we are able to restrict access to our buildings, gauge population density on campus, and assess test results in real time, among other things – all while respecting the privacy of individual information.

MIT Medical and MIT Emergency Management are monitoring the data 24/7 using a comprehensive dashboard. They provide an update to a cross-Institute Monitoring Team that meets each day. In turn, the Monitoring Team informs a senior MIT Decision Team, which will make any decisions to support the five principles above.

Using both sound science and good sense, the Monitoring and Decision teams will take any action needed to keep MIT on track.

Factors That Will Shape Fall

There is no single factor that will determine our decisions regarding campus operations this fall. We will consider a range of factors, some internal to MIT, and some beyond MIT. We are very conscious that our success in keeping Covid at bay affects the community around us, and what happens in the community around us affects MIT. This is the reality behind the sentiment, “We’re all in this together.” We really are.

In the external environment, we are considering factors such as:

  • Trends in Massachusetts health indicators
  • Changes in Covid transmission rates within Cambridge, Somerville, or Boston
  • Orders or requests from Commonwealth or City officials
  • Overall demand on our testing partners

More internally, we are keeping an eye on factors such as:

  • Trends in transmission on campus, particularly if no clear source is identified
  • Hot spots or clusters in a residence hall, academic building, or research facility
  • Trends in our isolation capacity
  • Infections among instructors and TAs that reduce teaching capacity
  • Infections among staff that disrupt essential services
  • A disruption of our testing capacity at MIT Medical
  • Noncompliance among those working or living on campus

Actions We May Take

It’s important to reiterate that MIT takes swift action in every positive case. Since we began our testing ramp-up two weeks ago, we’ve had eight positives out of some 19,500 tests conducted.

We start by immediately notifying the affected individual and supporting their health and recovery while in isolation. We then carry out contact tracing; notify each close contact and support them in quarantining; deep clean affected spaces, whether in a dorm, lab, or classroom; and provide necessary information to leadership of residence halls, departments, labs, and centers.

If we see emerging evidence that a change is needed to stanch transmission in our community or to otherwise respond to evolving conditions, we have many possible paths to pursue. Unlike last spring, when the only real option in the face of so many unknowns was to empty campus, we’ve built our fall plan around much more targeted options.

We could, for example, scale back in-person classes, reduce density in a lab or building, curtail the use of public areas in residence halls, limit the number of staff on campus, or take other similar measures.

We have the flexibility to make any of these adjustments, or a number of them in combination. We can dial up our response and later dial it down, as needed. The choices we make will be guided by a commitment to the overall well-being of the MIT community.

We are, indeed, in this together. So we are asking you to do your part – in every decision you make – to support all of MIT in succeeding in this incredible undertaking.


Cynthia Barnhart

Martin A. Schmidt