Opinion editorial

MIT should increase support for students in response to COVID-19

More exceptions should be made for students to remain on campus, in addition to aid for students preparing to move out

President Reif sent an email to the MIT community March 10 in the late afternoon asking that, in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, undergraduates living in MIT residences or FSILGs depart from campus “no later than noon on Tuesday, March 17.”

As a result, students, still attending their classes, completing their problem sets, and preparing for exams, experienced feelings of panic, fear, and confusion, wondering how they would be able to move out from their residences and find new accomodations in less than one week. 

Though it is clear that administration had much to examine in implementing these measures — meant to mitigate the growing severity of COVID-19 in Massachusetts and its effect on members of the MIT community, including students, faculty, researchers, and staff — the decision to forcefully displace over 4,000 undergraduates with only one week’s notice was ill-conceived and imprudent. It failed to appropriately address the reality that, for many students, “home or another off-campus location” is more dangerous than remaining on campus or for others, such a location does not exist at all.

Where other institutions, such as Stanford and UC Berkeley, have chosen to leave their residences and facilities open to any students for whom staying on campus is the best option, MIT students were told that there would be “limited exceptions” and that students hoping to remain “must receive official permission.” CDC guidelines for institutions of higher education recommend ensuring “continuity of safe housing,” suggesting that for schools — such as MIT — where cases of COVID-19 have not been identified among on-campus residents, “students may be allowed to remain in on-campus housing.”

While it is commendable that administration chose to reduce the density of the campus population, thereby lessening the risk of an on-campus outbreak, there are certainly plans of action that would have better served student needs. The firm choice to displace students reveals that administration did not fully consider what could happen to them beyond MIT’s campus.

Many students are being forced to return to a worse home situation, with increased danger of contracting the virus. In addition, while there are no confirmed cases at MIT, an asymptomatic student could be carrying the virus to their vulnerable families and communities by returning home to a region where COVID-19 has not yet taken a foothold.

In addition, many undergraduates suffer from financial hardship, come from difficult home situations, or have no home to return to at all. Furthermore, over 10% of MIT’s undergraduate population originates from countries outside of the U.S., many of which are even more heavily impacted by the virus. For international students attending MIT on tenuous student visas or fearful of an increasingly dangerous situation at home, the resources required and risks associated with leaving campus far exceed the support provided by administration.

Reif wrote that exceptions might be allowed to international students with visa issues, international students returning to “hard-hit” home countries, students with no home to go to, or students “for whom going home would be unsafe.” While Reif’s message suggested that students in these situations may be allowed to stay on campus, it did not indicate how the petition process would proceed or by when the petitions would be considered, failing to provide adequate peace of mind to those not fortunate enough to have a safe place to return to.

These questions were partially answered by a March 11 email from Chancellor Barnhart, Dean Nelson, and Vice Chancellor Waitz, which contained a form for students to fill out in order to request financial support or an exception to remain on campus. The email stated that students would receive a response that would “answer [their] questions, address [their] concerns, or get [them] to the right person who can help” within 24 hours.

However, the ultimate decisions to grant these exceptions were left to the Division of Student Life (DSL), rather than the discretion of the students themselves. Many students who have submitted the form have found that their own circumstances — which they considered severe enough to warrant an exception — were not viewed by the DSL to meet the exception criteria. Administration should relax the standards to receive an exception, in order to be more mindful of and empathetic toward students’ unfavorable situations.

The requirement that all undergraduates leave campus also presents significant challenges for students who are able to safely return home. MIT provides many resources to its undergraduate population such as health insurance, a source of income, and a safe working environment. Leaving could mean losing some or all of these resources.

Many students rely on MIT for health care. In fact, nearly 70% of the student population depends on MIT’s extended insurance health plan. There are many services that MIT’s health insurance offers that others do not, such as therapy, counseling, medical specialists, and surgeries. For those who rely solely on MIT’s health insurance, leaving campus could mean losing all health insurance coverage. As worded, MIT would not cover these situations. 

In addition, MIT should provide further resources to students moving from their residences. Currently, measures to help students move out include MIT “providing boxes for packing, bins for moving belongings, dumpsters for disposing of trash and options for storage” and case-by-case financial assistance. This is insufficient. 

Moving inevitably incurs many expenses, including travel and storage, that students may not be financially equipped to deal with, especially when many students do not have an income. At the very least, MIT should reimburse, in-part or in full, expenses related to moving. It is unfair for students to suffer financially as a result of MIT’s decision, and thus all students should be covered, assuaging one aspect of moving from campus at a moment’s notice.

In order to continue the education of all undergraduates, all classes will be virtualized starting March 30, but without on-campus resources, this could be untenable for many. There are certainly students who have inconsistent access to necessary resources such as computers, WiFi, a calm working environment, and collaboration with classmates. MIT should guarantee resources comparable to what they would receive on campus to students who need financial assistance to arrange alternative housing and to manage a stressful workload off campus.

Rather than be accountable for students on campus or provide concrete means of aid in strenuous situations, administration largely expects students to manage these difficult circumstances on their own. Students have had to rely on the support and resilience of their living communities and families, with insufficient access to resources that administration could, but has not provided.

At the beginning of the semester, students paid for and expected to receive a full term of in-person education and housing, and many purchased a semester’s worth of meals. However, they have received unsatisfactory information on how these expenses — the remainder of the semester’s housing and dining, as well as lab and activities fees included but not realized in tuition — would be appropriately refunded. Barnhart, Nelson, and Waitz wrote that housing and meal plan costs would be refunded “on a pro-rated basis,” but Reif’s initial message failed to address whether this would occur at all, despite the magnitude of these expenses, which exceeds tens of thousands for the typical student.

The spread of the coronavirus has catalyzed many abrupt changes, forcing students to uproot their lives and adapt to circumstances that they were not prepared for. Though the actions taken thus far by administration have been insufficient in providing students adequate guidance and closure, it is our hope that in the coming days, weeks, and months, administration will dedicate greater financial assistance and increased efforts to be empathetic and helpful toward all students. While we are confident in the ability of students to support one another, it is necessary that administration play its essential part in communicating with, aiding, and demonstrating their care for MIT’s students.

Editorials are the official opinion of The Tech. They are written by the Editorial Board, which consists of Publisher Nathan Liang, Editor in Chief Kristina Chen, Managing Editor Ivana Alardín, Executive Editor Áron Ricardo Perez-Lopez, and Opinion Editor Jen Fox. Business Manager Thomas Wang also contributed to this editorial.