UA releases recommendations on options for Fall 2020

UA recommends MIT administrators ‘develop a clear list of guidelines’ deciding whether students can remain in fall on-campus emergency housing

The Undergraduate Association’s (UA) Committee on COVID-19 released its recommendations to Team 2020 on possible scenarios for the fall semester June 6. 

Team 2020 announced on its website in May that it was considering six options for the fall semester. Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz described modified versions of the proposals in a Zoom meeting with administrators, faculty, and student leaders June 5.  

  1. All undergraduates are invited to return to campus, with many classes offered remotely. Physical distancing measures will be implemented in student residences and instructional spaces.

  2. All undergraduates are invited to return to campus, but the start of the fall semester is delayed by a few months. IAP is canceled, and the academic year may stretch into Summer 2021. 

  3. The fall semester will be split into two six-week sessions, with a two-week gap between sessions. Each student will attend one session on campus and the other session virtually.

  4. 60% of undergraduates are invited to return to campus for the fall semester. 75% of undergraduates are invited to return for the spring semester.

  5. The fall semester will be conducted remotely. 

  6. The school year will be split into three academic semesters. Each student will attend two semesters on campus and one virtually.

According to the UA website, Team 2020 is no longer considering Option 3 as of June 7.

The UA recommends Options 1, 3, and 4 and does not recommend Options 2, 5, and 6. 

Additionally, the UA recommends that fall semester classes begin one week early and end the weekend before Thanksgiving for options 1, 3, 4, and 6. This plan “preserves IAP virtually, minimizes travel risks, and decreases some of the time people are on campus during flu season,” the UA wrote. 

The UA wrote that because this calendar plan may be inequitable for students with financial instability or dangerous home situations, MIT should provide “exceptions for students with specific needs” to allow them to remain on campus.

The UA recommends Option 1 “if it can be implemented safely” because it provides an equitable learning environment for students and preserves a sense of campus community. However, MIT must “provide socially distant and safe learning spaces, have effective COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and have a suitable contingency plan” if a second wave of COVID-19 occurs. 

The UA does not recommend Option 2 because the delayed timeline will prevent students from gaining income, work experience, and industry connections through UROPs and internships during IAP and the summer, directly affecting students’ “post-graduation employment prospects.”

The UA recommends Option 3 because “although it is logistically challenging and academically disruptive,” it allows all students to be on campus for at least part of the fall semester. 

The UA recommends Option 4 because it allows most students to return to campus during the  academic year. However, this option may lead to “high deferral and leave of absence rates” for students not chosen to return, the UA wrote. 

The UA does not recommend Option 5 because student social life, campus culture, and the quality of education would be negatively impacted by a remote semester. Many students would take deferrals or leaves of absence in this scenario, creating “overcrowding and housing insecurity” in future academic years, the UA wrote.

The UA does not recommend Option 6 because the three semester plan is “highly disruptive and requires the largest adjustment from staff and students.” The UA cited high housing density, the uncertain status of the COVID-19 pandemic in the winter, disparities in departments’ abilities to adjust their curriculums, lack of campus community, moving costs for students living on campus in discontinuous semesters, and disruption of summer internships as potential risks. 

For the options involving reduced campus capacity, Waitz proposed two options in a Zoom meeting June 3. The first option involves juniors and seniors being on campus in the fall, while first years, sophomores, and seniors will be on campus in the spring. The second option prioritizes the return of students whose majors most require in-person instruction.

The UA recommends the first option over the second because it prioritizes seniors’ ability to complete degree requirements such as lab classes, allows all undergraduates to have an on-campus experience, preserves MIT community within class year, and would result in fewer deferrals and leaves of absence. While the option is “not ideal for students in lab-heavy majors,” it provides greater “overall value to the student body,” the UA wrote.

The UA wrote that the second option “greatly improves the quality of education for students with lab and project based classes” and “addresses the academic inequity between majors” that require in-person physical resources and those that do not. However, some students may “game the system” by changing their major or enrolling in lab courses to return to campus. This option also prevents first year students, most of whom don’t take lab classes, from forming connections with the MIT community.

The UA wrote that MIT administrators should “develop a clear list of guidelines determining qualifications allowing a student to remain in” on-campus emergency housing in the fall, even if the semester is held remotely. Qualifications could include “financial burden,” “lack of access to adequate educational resources” at home, “mental health and access to Student Support Services,” “safety of home life,” and the necessity of international travel to get home, the UA wrote.

The UA wrote that MIT administrators’ recent projection that roughly 500 students will remain on campus due to need is “reasonable,” but “MIT must be flexible and prepared to increase this number if necessary.”

The UA wrote that MIT’s “primary goals” should include “preserving the quality of the academic experience”; “providing a viable and equitable population strategy”; “designing a depopulation strategy in the event of a second wave” of COVID-19; “optimizing the quality of the social and living experience”; “prioritizing health and welfare” of the MIT, Boston, and Cambridge communities; and “providing flexibility in fall options that is fair socially and academically.”

The UA additionally acknowledged that “restrictions on social distancing will limit the benefits of being on campus,” including social life and extracurriculars. MIT’s plan to repopulate campus should address the concerns of student clubs, fraternities, sororities, and athletic teams, the UA wrote. 

The UA wrote that if the campus must be depopulated due to a second wave of COVID-19, the depopulation “should be planned as staggered departures from campus, and students should be given as much lead time as possible” when informed that they will need to leave. The UA suggested that administrators should give updates “on the status of campus safety” through the MIT Medical Patient Newsletter or MIT Forward.

The UA wrote that “MIT has historically been ineffective in providing adequate support to students during a leave of absence.” Administrators should develop “rigorous plans to support students taking leave” because the Institute “is likely to see the highest rates of deferral in its history” in the upcoming academic year, the UA wrote.

In MIT’s May 2020 Remote Experience Survey, 53% of student respondents indicated that they would “rather take a semester off than try to do it via remote learning.” 

Additionally, 70% of student respondents indicated that they “had a difficult time learning in this new, self-directed environment,” and 64% indicated that “distractions” in their living arrangement “made it difficult to learn” during the spring semester. Only 42% of student respondents indicated that “class sessions held on Zoom or similar technology were effective” for learning.

The UA wrote that MIT administrators should consider student input before deciding on the fall term’s grading policy.