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MIT moving to online classes; university reports visitor with coronavirus

People crossed Massachusetts Ave. at MIT Tuesday afternoon.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

MIT is moving all classes online and expecting undergraduate students to move out of their dormitories by Tuesday, as universities throughout New England step up their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The university said a recent visit to campus by a recruiter who had contracted the virus illustrated the risks — and the need for more aggressive precautionary measures.

MIT joins Harvard University, Amherst College, Smith College, and Middlebury College in instructing students to stay away from campus after spring break. All those colleges have given students a few days to a week to pack up their belongings and leave campus.


MIT’s spring break begins officially begins on March 23, but classes will also be cancelled next week. That will give students time to move out of the dorms and faculty time to transition classes to a virtual format.

“We are taking this dramatic action to protect the health and safety of everyone at MIT,” president L. Rafael Reif said in a message of to the community. “The intense and free-flowing collaboration MIT is known for comes with close contact and shared spaces, equipment, and supplies. These characteristics, which we cherish in normal times, increase the risk of Covid-19 spreading on our campus.

In his message, Reif said a recruiter from Mastercard Advisors who visited MIT Sloan, the university’s business school, in late February has since tested positive for COVID-19.

Mastercard alerted MIT about the recruiter this past weekend and provided the names of five Sloan students and two Sloan staff members who met with the recruiter on Feb. 26-27 in a conference room at the campus, according to MIT Medical’s website.

The affected individuals have been interviewed by MIT Medical and report good health. They are under observation. The university said it has notified Cambridge and state health officials.


“It might have turned out differently, so we consider this a cautionary tale,” Reif said.

MIT said because graduate students live in apartment-style buildings and don’t have to share facilities, they are not being asked to leave campus. But research groups are being asked to practice “social distancing” and work less closely together.

MIT said it will allow some undergraduates, on a case-by-case basis to remain on campus but they must request permission. International students who fear they may not be able to return to the US because of visa issues or cannot go home because it was hard hit by the coronavirus could qualify to stay. Also, students who do not have a home to go to or feel unsafe at their home, will be given exceptions to stay, the university said.

MIT acknowledged that it may cost students more money to move at the last minute, and Reif said he would be following up with additional information about financial help.

“It is painful to impose this intense disruption on the normal rhythms of MIT, but the arrival of spring break offers the best opportunity to act,” he said.

In the past few weeks, colleges across the country have rapidly updated their reactions to the coronavirus, as the illness moved from a threat in China to a global problem. In January, many institutions simply installed more handsanitizer stations for students returning from winter break in China, where the virus first appeared.

As the virus spread, colleges and universities brought back students on overseas study abroad programs, grounded domestic and international travel for faculty and students, and then restricted large gatherings, including sports events and new student orientations.


MIT on Monday announced that it would transition all large classes — those with more than 150 students — online. But 24 hours later, it has moved all instruction online.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her @fernandesglobe.