Covid-19 Info Center

May 20, 2020

Safe, gradual return to campus for graduate students

To the members of the graduate student community:

Ten weeks ago, MIT made the decision to de-densify campus in order to protect our community and to help halt the spread of Covid-19. Today, we are writing to let you know that the Institute is beginning to take measured steps to bring people back to campus, starting with research operations and graduate students who departed in March.

As President Reif wrote in his message to the community last week, this must be a careful, gradual process, governed by our commitment to safety and premised upon new ways of operating. As he noted, many decisions remain to be made, especially regarding undergraduate life on campus – a harder challenge to address because of the communal nature of undergraduate residence halls. Those challenges – including implications for students, staff, faculty, visitors, and the greater Cambridge community of which we are part – will be shared widely in the community engagement process taking place next week.

What follows below is an initial sketch of what the near-term future holds for both returning and incoming graduate students, reflecting careful planning by the Institute, consultation with the community, and alignment with the re-opening guidance the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has issued to date.

Research ramp-up

We are preparing for a phased ramp-up of on-campus research, as indicated by the launch of the research building access pilot – a way for us to test efficient campus access methods for those currently involved in critical approved research – and yesterday’s request that leaders of our departments, labs, and centers establish lab-specific return plans based on the parameters established by the Research Ramp-Up Lightning Committee. Our planning is in an early stage, but at a high-level the underpinnings of a gradual return to greater on-campus research operations will include:

  • Initially, any researcher who can continue to work remotely will be required to do so.
  • Participation in on-campus research will continue to be voluntary. Returning personnel must affirm that they understand and agree to this and other conditions by filling out an electronic “Acknowledgment Form.”
  • Reduced occupancy and density levels for our buildings and labs will be prescribed by our medical and public health professionals.
  • Individual PIs will be empowered to structure their research activities in response to these new occupancy and density levels, and they must create detailed schedules and “exposure control” plans for each member of their on-campus lab community.
  • Anyone who chooses to participate in on-campus research will be required to wear face coverings, follow physical distancing protocols, and agree to submit to health testing and monitoring.
  • To further reduce the risk of infection and community spread, lab work plans may rely on shift schedules and enhanced cleaning measures.

Access to campus spaces

It will be a while before most campus spaces are open to the community. As we ramp up research activities, we will take several measured steps for increasing access to classrooms, labs, and community spaces. Various options will be tested in the upcoming series of ‘community charettes’ that President Reif described last week. It is important to note, however, that regardless of the final path forward for fall 2020 and beyond, movement around campus will continue to be constrained for the foreseeable future so that we can minimize risks connected to Covid-19.

The primary elements of the plans we are exploring and will explore further at the ‘community charettes’ include:

  • A hybrid academic model consisting of online education and in-person education with physical distancing (different programs are preparing different hybrid approaches now);
  • Significantly lower on-campus population density in a given room, building, and sector of campus than was typical in fall 2019, consistent with public health guidance; and
  • New processes for limiting who has access to campus space and when, in order to help us reduce the spread of the disease. Individual programs are working on their plans for how to best use the space.

We all must accept that campus space will be akin to a precious resource for learning and research throughout the remainder of 2020. In order to be able to share in the benefits of this resource, we will need to commit to looking out for other members of the community who are learning, researching, and working alongside us. This means that wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing, contributing to good hygiene practices, and getting used to operating within defined campus spaces will be our “new normal” for the foreseeable future.

Graduate student housing

In the upcoming academic year, we must reduce our typical graduate student residential density to protect the health and safety of our graduate student communities, the staff that support them, and our neighbors. Relying on input from MIT Medical and other experts and campus partners, we reviewed the varied living environments of our graduate student residence halls and devised scenarios with low student-to-bathroom and kitchen ratios in order to reduce the risk of community spread of Covid-19. 

These changes will eventually result in a system-wide average of roughly 85% density in our graduate student residences (some buildings will be higher or lower depending on the living space configurations). Students who have already renewed their housing assignments for Academic Year 2020-21 will not be impacted by this reduction in density. We will continue to monitor this situation and, depending upon advances in testing, tracing, and treatments, we may revisit this decision before the 2021 spring term, and allow more students to reside on campus.

Housing & Residential Services, Heads of House, and student leaders have also collaborated on a phased path forward for routine returns to campus for residents who departed their 2019-2020 housing assignments and renewed their housing for the fall. The plan consists of three parts for returning students:

  • Step One: Graduate students residing in private apartments such as family-housing, one-bedroom, and efficiency units can return immediately.
  • Step Two: Graduate students residing in multi-occupant, 2-4 bedroom apartments can begin to return on June 15, 2020 in accordance with our goal of de-densifying housing where residents share a kitchen or bathroom.
  • Step Three: We do not yet know when graduate students who live in dormitory-style residences with shared floor kitchens and floor bathrooms can return to campus, but we expect to be able to confirm a timetable for their return shortly after the launch of Step Two.

More details about this plan, including how to return to campus to gather belongings from apartments or how to request an exception to return sooner due to a significant hardship or extenuating circumstance, may be found on the Returning to Graduate Housing page.

All students who reside in on-campus housing will be required to adhere to our Covid-19 protection on-campus housing policies and guidance for returning: wearing face coverings in public areas; following strict limits on the use of common areas and physical distancing rules in our dining halls; and meeting community expectations for testing and self-quarantining, among other stipulations. A new housing license agreement will detail these requirements and rules, as well as possible other conditions such as testing, which are all designed to protect the health of our residential communities.

Please note that graduate students who applied to live on campus will be receiving a separate communication this evening with the results of the housing lottery process. If they receive an assignment, they will participate in a phased move-in process in August. If they do not receive a housing assignment, they will be informed about the waitlist process for securing on-campus housing as well as resources to assist with off-campus housing searches.

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We hope this framework for research, access to campus space, and graduate student housing begins to give you greater clarity about the road ahead. We also know many international students have concerns about how visa delays and travel restrictions may impact their appointments or ability to enroll at MIT. We encourage anyone with these concerns to work with their department or program so that we can address your questions on a case-by-case basis. We are in the process of issuing guidance to departments on these topics now.

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To protect the health and wellness of our community and our neighbors, it is imperative that we go slowly, remain vigilant, and take care of ourselves and each other along the way. We have successfully implemented these measures to date, and can go further still if we proceed with care and caution.

We share with you the desire to return to a vibrant campus life of living, learning, and working, and appreciate your creativity and patience now and in that new future together.


Cynthia Barnhart, Chancellor

Maria Zuber, Vice President for Research

Suzy Nelson, Vice President and Dean for Student Life

Krystyn Van Vliet, Associate Provost