Team 2020 has considered a variety of academic and residential life options for Academic Year 2020-21. Here, we present five options that have been refined with new information, further data analysis, and extensive feedback from MIT community members.
Critical Background Information
For all options, we anticipate that…
- For fall 2020, at least, and perhaps for the spring of 2021, most of the curriculum that can be online will be online.
- Instructors should plan for EVERYTHING that can be remote to be remote and assume that all in-person elements (including project and lab classes) may be suspended or canceled if necessary. Case-by-case arrangements will need to be made for students who do not come to campus. For all options, we will provide robust experiential learning opportunities, remote and/or in-person, when possible. Approaching instruction in this way has multiple advantages:
- It conservatively positions the curriculum.
- It addresses the needs of students who will not be on campus (either because we do not invite them back or because of personal, visa, or health situations).
- It addresses the needs of faculty and instructional staff who will not be on campus because of personal or health situations.
- On-campus instructional spaces will be operated in a physically-distanced way. Such constraints will limit access to learning spaces on campus, even if large numbers of students are in residence. There will be ongoing mandatory physical distancing and other now-common practices such as wearing face coverings in classroom, research lab, residential, and work spaces. We anticipate that on average each student may have access to campus instructional spaces for two to three half-days each week.
- Curricular and calendar decisions will apply to both graduate students and undergraduate students.
- Approximately 2,300 new graduate students will be starting this academic year, most will be taking classes as they start their programs.
- We will consider proposals to enable individual professional masters programs to run on a different calendar.
- We note that graduate students play significant roles in undergraduate education.
- Calendar changes will be needed even under a normal two-semester calendar.
- Students will be tested immediately upon arrival, quarantine for 7 days, and then they will be retested. Therefore, we assume that the first week of all semesters for all options will be remote-only instruction.
- For options that start with in-person elements in the fall, it is attractive to start the semester one week early, and then to end in-person elements the weekend before Thanksgiving. Students would travel home over Thanksgiving week and then the semester would continue in a fully-remote teaching mode after Thanksgiving.
- Residences will require a two-week change-over time between semesters (4-day move-out, 7-day cleaning, 3-day move-in).
- Breaks that typically involve significant travel (e.g. spring break) will be removed or replaced by several short breaks with no travel permitted.
- For options that extend into the summer, we will likely need to either remove one week from each semester or remove some breaks. If we elect to remove a week from the semester, it will require a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, which we may not be able to secure.
Perhaps the most important factor for judging the relative appeal and success of different options is something we cannot know with any certainty, namely, what the future will hold.
- When will easy, rapid testing be available?
- When will effective therapeutics be widely available to mitigate the most serious health consequences?
- Will there be a second wave of infections in the fall?
- Will there be a second wave of infections in the winter and significant comorbidity with the seasonal flu?
- Will there be an effective vaccine widely available by spring?
- Will we need to limit the population on campus for the full academic year?
Given these uncertainties, it is necessary to consider the various options for fall in the context of a full year. It is also critical to think about how the various options may enable us to pivot to more or fewer students, staff, and faculty on campus, depending on whether conditions get better or worse.
These pivoting considerations must include changes semester-to-semester, but also within a semester, as government guidance and local public health status warrant (e.g., if we were to have to send students home early, or to potentially decide to invite more back mid-semester).
There are two dominant models for operating our curriculum which would impact the academic experience for all students:
- a two-semester model (Options 1-3 and 5); and
- a three-semester model (Option 4).
(Note that the option numbering has changed from prior communications with the MIT community.)
Each of these options can be implemented with varying degrees of in-person and remote education. The timing of each can also be adjusted (e.g., the start and end dates).
The Five Options: In Brief
- Invite all undergraduate students back in the fall for in-person teaching;
- Delayed start, with two full semesters beginning in early January;
- Two semesters with a fall start (60% of undergrads invited back in the fall, and 75% in the spring);
- A three-semester model where all undergrads are guaranteed two out of three semesters on campus; and
- Fully remote fall, with the degree of in-person teaching for spring to be determined later based on conditions closer to that time.
Academic Calendar Impacts
The academic calendars for these options are shown below.
All semesters with in-person elements would begin with one week of remote education, even for students who are in residence on campus. This will enable testing and quarantine.
For options that begin with in-person elements in the fall, it is ideal to start the semester one week early and then end in-person instruction the weekend before Thanksgiving. Students would travel home over Thanksgiving week and resume their classes in a fully-remote mode following Thanksgiving. This would remove back-and-forth travel (which would require additional testing and quarantine), and reduce the campus population during the start of winter.
For the two-semester/early start option above, the period from November 20 through the beginning of February would be remote only (including IAP). For spring semester, we recommend removing spring break, and replacing it with several shorter breaks and ending the spring semester at the typical time in late May.
For the delayed start option, we have removed breaks from the winter and spring semesters to enable the academic year to end in July, with Commencement in early August prior to the start of the next academic year.
For the three-semester model, we would operate the fall semester similar to the two-semester model in the two-semester/early start option, and the winter and spring semesters would be on the same timing as the two-semester/delayed start option.
For a fully remote fall, we would operate on our regular calendar.
The Five Options: In Detail
Option 1: Invite 100% of undergraduate students to return to campus and access and operate instructional spaces in a physically-distanced way, with much of the curriculum being offered remotely over two semesters.
The academic calendar for this option would be the “Early Start” as shown in the figure above.
This option has fewer equity concerns than some of the other options, but some students may still not be able to come back, and there may be potential differences between students in hotels and students in on-campus housing. It may also result in fewer schedule disruptions than other options.
It is critical to note that MIT does not have sufficient housing capacity for a 100% return if we operate our undergraduate residences and FSILGs in a reduced density way (e.g. one student per dorm room). In order to implement this option while maintaining such physical distancing guidelines, we would need additional residential capacity (e.g., hotels) or graduate residence spaces to house undergraduates and to provide the appropriate isolation space. An alternative would be to house students at two per room.
Whatever the arrangement, bringing all students back would require a greater need for testing and tracing and could make physical distancing harder to achieve, thereby increasing the risk for COVID infections. It will also strain the residential education model, with a potential need to enforce rules in a more heavy-handed way and to position residential life staff in hotels. Providing meals and dining services will be a challenge. Other resources such as campus facilities access (gyms, maker spaces, etc.) and on-campus instruction may be more limited on a per capita basis than they would be with less than 100% of students back on campus. Inviting all students back may also convey a false sense of security and unnecessarily pressure students to return to campus.
This option is only feasible if the abilities to test for, trace, and treat the disease improve rapidly in the next two months. It is less feasible if there is a late-summer or early-fall second wave of infections in the greater Boston area. Positioning all students on or near campus is more nimble if conditions improve. However, it is less robust if conditions deteriorate. Operating a strained residential life system at 100% capacity (while implementing new social distancing practices) would limit our ability to respond to challenges.
Option 2: Delayed start to subjects for all students (with students invited back in early January 2021), then hold two regular semesters (no IAP) and potentially stretch the academic year into early summer 2021.
The calendar for this option would be the “January Start” as shown in the figure above.
A January start provides an opportunity for exciting MIT-unique experiential and remote curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities in the fall, including interactions with community partners and alumni. The delay also enables faculty and staff time and resources to be relieved of some immediate obligations to better prepare for remote teaching. Energy and resources, however, would need to be redirected to enable robust remote experiential learning opportunities for the fall.
This option may have implications for graduate student TA support for the fall. It would also extend the academic calendar until the end of July (even with compression of the semester). This would potentially impact the following:
- Faculty/lecturers/staff workload and schedule; childcare needs; professional commitments; etc.
- The availability of summer programs, such as OEOP, OME Interphase EDGE, and others
- The faculty and graduate student research enterprise, the ability to charge research to grants, and conference travel, etc.
- Student summer internships and other experiential learning opportunities
- Downtime before the next academic year begins
This option is more attractive if there is a second wave of infections in the greater Boston area in late summer/early fall, and if the abilities to test for, trace, and treat the disease improve significantly sometime in the fall. We can also learn from our peers who bring students back in the fall and then apply those lessons in the spring. It is less attractive if there is a second (or perhaps third) wave of infections in the winter, with the seasonal flu causing more people to need to be tested and introducing potential comorbidity effects. Further, if we are able to operate our campus with perhaps 50% of the undergraduates in residence in the fall, and the pandemic lasts for the entire year, we would not be taking full advantage of the campus resource during the fall if we significantly delay the start.
Option 3: Invite 60% of the undergraduates to campus in fall, 75% in spring (two semesters).
The calendar for this option would be the “Early Start” as shown in the figure above.
This option provides all students at least one semester in-residence (25% get two). There are many options for which student cohorts to bring to campus and when (by class-year, by major, by social group, etc.) which all have different advantages and disadvantages.
As with the other options that limit the number of undergraduates on campus in the fall, we would be able to achieve this by operating on-campus residences and FSILGs in a physically-distanced way consistent with one student per room. This would create less strain on the residential system than having 100% of students on campus, which makes this option more robust in the face of challenges.
Students could also take greater advantage, on a per capita basis, of other capacity-limited resources, such as campus facilities access (gyms, maker spaces, etc.) and on-campus instruction than they would be able to with 100% of students back. This option does not extend into our typical summer period, summer on-campus programming, internships, research activities, etc. We would be able to replace spring break with several shorter breaks and still finish by the end of May. It also provides more time over the winter for faculty and staff to prepare for what may be another largely online spring semester.
The leading choice for which students to invite back to campus would be to have seniors and juniors in the fall, plus as many as 500 additional students who are in difficult environments for remote learning. In the spring, we would invite seniors, sophomores and first-year students, plus some number of additional students who are in difficult environments for remote learning (depending on our residential capacity in the spring). However, if Option 3 is pursued for fall, other alternatives for which students to bring to campus should be considered more deeply.
This option may require replanning when classes are taught (fall or spring) between semesters to be commensurate with when cohorts of students are on campus to participate in subjects that rely on access to the physical instructional spaces. Not all students would get the in-person elements of all their classes. Not all students would get the opportunity to be on campus with all other students.
Depending on conditions in the spring, some students may end up with more or less on-campus time than others or may have different restrictions in place during their on-campus time. This option is attractive if health conditions are similar in the fall and the spring so that we are constrained to operate with less than 100% of the students on campus throughout the academic year. This option works well if there is a winter wave of COVID-19 as very few undergraduates (emergency housing only) would be on campus from the end of November through the end of January. We could delay the start of the spring semester by additional time if health conditions warrant it. This option does not work as well as Options 2 or 5 if there is a late summer/early fall wave.
Option 4: Invite 25% to 50% of undergraduate students on campus in the fall, as part of a three-semester year. Distribute typical fall and spring subjects taught over three semesters (fall, winter, and spring terms of equal length) and provide all undergraduate students with an on-campus experience for two of the three semesters.
The calendar for this option would be the “Three Semester” as shown in the figure above.
This option enables each student, provided no significant changes in campus capacity occur, to have two semesters on campus. It would also allow nearly all undergraduates to take all of their classes while living on campus.
It enables us to begin to provide on-campus experiences to some students starting in the fall while allowing us to increase or reduce the population in subsequent semesters. It also distributes the teaching over a longer period of time, thereby potentially allowing a greater satisfaction of academic and residential life needs given capacity constraints on campus instructional spaces and residences.
Students could take greater advantage, on a per capita basis, of other capacity-constrained resources such as campus facilities access (gyms, maker spaces, etc.) and on-campus instruction than they would be able to with 100% of students back.
The availability of a “third” semester when some students are remote could be used for internships, down-time, or for making additional progress on degree completion remotely (although this might not be able to be tuition-free).
There are many options for which cohorts of students to bring to campus when (by class-year, by major, by social group, etc.), all of which have different advantages and disadvantages. The three leading alternatives, in order of preference, are:
- A flexible model based on an algorithm which optimizes students/schedules to get 50% of students on-campus in fall, 75% in winter, and 75% in spring;
- By major and year: Similar to the flexible model but specifies full major-year pairs rather than subjects; and
- By year: fall – years 1 & 2, winter – years 2, 3, & 4, spring – years 1, 3, & 4.
Implementing this option requires a more significant replanning of the academic calendar and would be a new model for MIT. There would be no IAP. Similar to the delayed/January start option (Option 2), the extension into summer (likely until late July) may impact:
- Faculty/lecturers/staff workload and schedule, childcare needs, professional commitments, etc.;
- Summer programs, OEOP, OME Interphase EDGE, others;
- Faculty and graduate student research enterprise, charging to grants, conference travel;
- Student summer internships and other experiential learning opportunities; and
- Downtime before next AY begins.
This option does not work as well as others if there are waves of COVID-19 in late summer/early fall or in the winter. However, it does allow some flexibility with occupancy levels in each semester.
Option 5: Undergraduate students are 100% remote in the fall, TBD for the spring.
The calendar for this option would be the “Regular Calendar” as shown in the figure above.
This option minimizes the population on campus in the fall to assist in reducing the risk of disease spread on-campus. It is the easiest to implement from a scheduling perspective as we would maintain our current academic calendar and teach primarily our typical schedule of fall classes but do so remotely (however, some lab/project classes may shift to spring term). There is also a simplicity in doing everything remotely. On-campus emergency housing would likely continue, perhaps at a different capacity level. Compared to other options, MIT would have more capacity and resources available to invite back (only) students who are in difficult learning environments. It also preserves space on campus for other uses (e.g. the research enterprise).
Our students would not benefit from some of the educational experiences offered by in-person teaching and learning, and not all learning objectives in all classes could be achieved remotely. This would have differential impacts on students in some majors relative to others. The residential life experience would be weakened, which may have social and mental health implications for many students. There may be equity impacts for students who are not living in good remote learning environments. There may be equity impacts, as not all students would be guaranteed at least one semester on campus if capacity on campus remains limited in the spring.
Pivot options in the spring include anything from 0% to 100% undergraduate students on campus. This option is attractive if health conditions in the late summer and throughout the fall are similar to those we have just experienced in March, April, and May 2020, with government orders in place for stringent physical distancing and business closures.