Heads of house issue memorandum against 100% undergraduate return in fall

McCormick Heads of House support 100% return option

The heads of house for 16 of MIT’s 18 undergraduate and graduate residences signed a memorandum June 8 urging administrators to “forgo further consideration of” inviting all undergraduates to return to campus for Fall 2020. The Burton Conner and McCormick Heads of House did not co-sign.

Team 2020’s website writes that MIT “does not have sufficient housing capacity” for a full return while operating its undergraduate residences as well as its fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILG) “in a reduced density way,” with one student per room. The website writes that possible solutions include assigning two students per room or housing undergraduates in hotels or graduate residences.

The memorandum wrote that Team 2020’s proposal to bring all undergraduates back to campus in the fall “significantly compromises MIT’s ability to create a safe environment for those that live and work in the dorms.” 

“As faculty who live on campus in the undergraduate and graduate residences, we have a uniquely close view into both the academic and social circumstances of the MIT student body,” the memorandum wrote.

It is “not reasonable to expect full compliance with physical distancing rules,” including mask-wearing, in the residences, the memorandum wrote, adding that students are likely to break these rules “due to a high-stress environment” and “the mental health implications of complying with” the rules.

The memorandum also wrote that house teams cannot effectively enforce physical distancing rules in residences “with a structure and culture that is intentionally designed to promote interactions.” Furthermore, “dorms cannot be physically isolated from the campus and surrounding community.”

The memorandum wrote that administrators’ proposal to house some undergraduates in off-campus hotels is unrealistic because “creating several new communities in different hotels with support from existing House Teams is not a viable solution.” Additionally, house teams are “already coping with an untenably high workload.” 

Each hotel would require “co-located staffing comparable to those in existing dorms,” the memorandum wrote, adding that hotels are not designed for studying or long-term living, making physical distancing rules “more difficult to enforce.”

Additionally, the “strain” of maintaining a residential system with all undergraduates back on campus “will leave no flexibility to respond to contingencies if there is an outbreak on campus,” the memorandum wrote. 

Finally, the memorandum wrote that the 100% undergraduate return option “might create a false sense of security” and “normalcy,” increasing the likelihood of noncompliance with physical distancing rules. The memorandum suggested “study grants” and “reduced tuition” as possible incentives to encourage students who can safely stay home for the fall semester to do so.

President Rafael L. Reif wrote in an email to the MIT community June 17 that the proportion of undergraduates permitted to return to campus in the fall will be “conceivably as high as 60 percent, but likely much lower.” Each undergraduate will be housed in an individual room, Reif wrote.

Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life, wrote in an email to The Tech that based on Reif’s email, “it is unlikely that hotel spaces will be needed to house undergraduates.” 

“If the plans for fall change, we will work to ensure that students in hotels get all the support they need,” Nelson wrote. “The community expectations for residents in both on-campus housing and FSILGs will be based on public health best practices and directions from MIT Medical that have been in effect throughout the pandemic.”

The McCormick Heads of House did not sign the letter “because some of the statements are in conflict with the conversations maintained in the McCormick Community,” the memorandum wrote.

The McCormick Heads of House wrote in the memorandum that having all undergraduates return for the fall term is “feasible with the proper technical and financial resources.” 

“Students will come back to Cambridge whether we house them or not, and it will make more sense to have them where we can exert some behavioral control” in the dorms, they wrote. 

McCormick Head of House Raul Radovitzky wrote in an email to The Tech that returning to Cambridge even if MIT doesn’t house them is “an option available that may work for some or many students that introduces additional health concerns that we should consider.”

The McCormick Heads of House wrote in the memorandum that students should be required to agree to a “very clear set of rules for the new community standards,” including mandatory COVID-19 testing, before returning to campus. “MIT cannot guarantee 100% safety, and neither can any other space, institution, public venue,” or otherwise during a pandemic.

“MIT will not be asking for anything more — or beyond — of what everyone is already doing at home: masks, handwashing, and distancing except from those in the same household (in this case your floormates),” they wrote in the memorandum. “It seems to me like we are not trusting this age group to behave like the adults they are.”

Radovitzky wrote in the email that the McCormick Heads of House preferred the 100% undergraduate return option over the other four options for the fall proposed by Team 2020 because “we feel that we need to all come together, realize the privilege and embrace the opportunity we have to be allowed back on campus, commit to caring for the safety of each other in a responsible manner, and show the world one more time what is possible at MIT.”

Radovitzky also expressed concern that the other proposed options may result in “increased inequity for those who cannot be on campus,” as well as negative “impact on student mental health” and “our ability to fulfill our commitment to our community of providing them with the most meaningful MIT experience.”

The memorandum noted that BC Heads of House Janelle Knox-Hayes and Jarrod Hayes did not sign the letter due to “the uncertainty surrounding the status” of BC residents.

BC was originally scheduled to be closed for renovations June 2020 to August 2022. However, the construction of the New Vassar dorm, originally slated to open in August, has been delayed due to Cambridge’s March moratorium on construction. As a result, BC may continue to be open to house undergraduates in the fall. 

BC has served as a quarantine center for students exposed to COVID-19 since undergraduates moved out in March.

Knox-Hayes and Hayes wrote in an email to The Tech that they “do not know if BC will continue to serve as the centralized support facility or if some other quarantine option may be enacted” in the fall.

The Academic Policy and Regulations Team (APART), led by Faculty Chair Rick Danheiser, issued a statement that APART’s consensus view is that the 100% undergraduate return option was “conceivable, but with serious issues.” 

Of the five options proposed by Team 2020, APART most favored Option 3, in which 60% and 75% of undergraduates live on campus in the fall and spring respectively, followed by Option 5, in which all undergraduates are remote in the fall. APART rejected Options 2 and 4, which respectively call for delaying the start of the school year to January 2021 and implementing a three-semester academic year.