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MIT won’t allow all students to return to campus in the fall

Fewer than 60 percent of undergraduates are  likely to return to campus in the fall, MIT said Wednesday.
Fewer than 60 percent of undergraduates are likely to return to campus in the fall, MIT said Wednesday.Scott Eisen/Bloomberg News

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Wednesday that probably fewer than 60 percent of undergraduates will be allowed to return to campus this fall, and all courses are likely to conclude in-person teaching by Thanksgiving, part of a massive effort to curb the spread of coronavirus.

In an e-mail to the MIT campus, president L. Rafael Reif also said students will live in individual dormitory rooms to allow for physical distancing, and the school will conduct mandatory virus testing and prohibit large lectures and gatherings.

“I join you in feeling frustrated by the persistent uncertainty of the situation,” Reif wrote. “We need to make decisions with incomplete, imprecise and dynamic information, and we are taking time to consult broadly.”

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The announcement comes as all colleges in Boston and around the country grapple with how and whether to reopen in the fall. Some schools, including Boston University and Northeastern University, plan to offer students the option to return or to complete the semester online. Other schools, like Bunker Hill Community College, whose students rely heavily on safe public transportation, plan to remain entirely online.

Reif said more plans about the fall reopening will be announced by July 6.

“Obviously, we cannot control the trajectory of the pandemic this fall, either here in Massachusetts or in the places around the world our students call home. We also have no control over the government response. We must accept these as unknowns and be ready to adapt,” Reif wrote.

Classes are likely to begin a week early, around Sept. 1, Reif said. After Thanksgiving, the term will be finished remotely.

All courses that can be “taught effectively” online will be online, he said. The undergraduates who do return to campus will be allowed to do some work in small groups, especially in courses that require access to laboratories, workshops, and performance spaces, the e-mail said.

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The university does not know how many undergraduates will return yet but said it will probably be less than 60 percent. Normally, two or three students share a dormitory room, but that won’t be possible this year, Reif wrote.

“Undergraduates have overwhelmingly expressed how much they value being on campus,” the e-mail said. “We aim to give as many students as possible the opportunity to return safely this year.”

Reif said the campus will feel much different. Mandatory COVID-19 testing will happen before students return and regularly thereafter. Masks will be mandated. Students will be required to provide “daily health attestations” via an app or website. There will be staggered schedules, reconfigured workplaces, enhanced cleaning, and much less travel.

Although the university has the ability to test, perform contract tracing, and quarantine students, officials nevertheless expect to face cases of the virus this fall, Reif wrote, saying they want to be as prepared as possible to quickly spot cases and isolate them.

Reif said the school will review its plan over the next few weeks to decide how many students and staff can return in the fall. Administrators will also establish a set of “threshold conditions” that would require the campus to scale back or suspend operations if the situation worsens.

As for staff, Reif wrote that hundreds of essential workers have continued to work on campus throughout the pandemic. More will return soon, he wrote.

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Beyond that, he included a list of which employees will be able to return first, beginning with research faculty who work in labs, then graduate students who work in labs, then undergraduates, then administrative and other non-research staff, many of whom can work effectively from home.

Sirena Yu, a rising sophomore from Fairfax, Va., said the decision to allow only some students back is smart, but she hopes she’ll be one of them.

As a computer science and math major it’s not imperative for her to attend class in person, but she is a mezzo soprano in Syncopasian, an a capella group on campus that performs East Asian music.

“It’s a huge part of my life at school,” she said. “I definitely think that it’s going to pretty detrimental to student life.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.