Enter Covid: When MIT froze

“You know the CDC says that masks aren’t effective, right?” I prodded.

Ignoring my question, my lab mate gathered his things from his desk and prepared to leave the office for good. He gave me an exasperated look from behind his mask as he went out the door. He would be working from home from now on.

It was the morning of March 9th, 2020, and the Coronavirus still seemed far, far away from MIT, my lasers, and the undergrads I live with as a Graduate Resident Advisor (GRA) in Maseeh Hall.

That week I was excited to start working on a new experiment in the lab, with new teammates. I had just had an indulgent 25th birthday party with as many snack foods and friends crammed into my apartment as possible. The next week, I was going to fly to see my mom in California. We were going to taste wine, get facials, and chill at the beach. On the way back from California, I planned to go camping with my best friend from college. All this travelling was my last hurrah before I buckled down and studied for my oral qualifying exam coming up in May.

Of course, now we know that none of that ever happened. Except for the qualifying exam — some things really are inevitable.

That Wednesday, March 11th, I walked out of my apartment in Maseeh and toward the infinite corridor like I did every day. I got a squirt of hand sanitizer at one of the new sanitizing stations that popped up overnight in Lobby 7 (MIT’s grand entrance). Looking around at the undergrads, I immediately sensed something was off. There was a strange buzz — a palpable energy that went above and beyond the standard stress of problem sets and college drama.

I overheard someone ask, “do you think they’re really going to shut it down?” As I made the rest of the trek to my office, I pondered. It seemed silly that a whole university would shut down for a virus.

I got on with research-as-usual, until an email from one of my undergrads popped into my inbox during a mid-morning break.

Hi Alyssa, one of my friends said that MIT is thinking about kicking us out, do you think that’s gonna happen? They can’t kick us out, right? They said there might be an announcement in the next few hours.

I reassured her that it was probably just a rumor and that she did not need to worry unless MIT sent out an official statement. I took a sip of tea, returned to the lab, and focused my mind back to things that really mattered: making a good impression on my new lab mates and getting my problem set done. No more than ten people in the US even had this virus anyway.

By the time I made it back to my office after lunch, another email had popped into my inbox, but this time it was from MIT. It was official. All undergraduates would have to move off-campus permanently for the remainder of the semester. They had to pack up and leave within a week.

It was early, but I immediately left lab and went home to Maseeh to try to gauge and intercept the inevitable panic. To my surprise, my floor was not freaking out. Most of my students were in the lounge, playing music. They were clearly annoyed that MIT was needlessly messing up spring semester. Overall, there was a festive air. My students were going to enjoy that last week at MIT, and there was nothing the administration could do about it.

After chatting with some students for a bit, I hunkered down at my kitchen table — with my apartment door open — and sifted through the piles of emails about the move out, storing belongings, and reimbursements for plane tickets. I digested the highlights and sent them out to my students in the most reassuring email I could muster. As the afternoon wore on, student after student stopped in to vent their frustrations.

Later that evening, some of my students showed me pictures of a massive party that the undergrads had in Killian Court that afternoon. Students were drinking, crowding, and carrying the hand sanitizing stations like trophies at the front of a parade. The police had to break up the party in the end. Clearly, the attitude on my floor was widespread among the undergrads. It was MIT’s fault that the semester was ruined.

At the House Team Meeting that night, my fellow GRAs and I had a million questions. Unfortunately, the house leadership had no answers. The whole campus was caught off guard by this decision. Our role as GRAs was to calm people down and be supportive and steady while our students’ expectations were squashed.

The next day, Thursday, I went back into the lab to continue research as normal. The campus was much less hectic than I imagined it would be, so I tried to settle back into my normal routine. The undergraduates would be gone soon, but I reassured myself that everything else would continue normally.

I got back to Maseeh around six o’clock that night and walked through a buzzing hallway. I planned to stay in my apartment all night with the door open again, so I ordered in dinner and started doing my problem sets at my kitchen table.

The first few hours of the night went on about the same as the previous day. Then, at 10:44PM, my phone buzzed. Simultaneously, I heard a chorus of phone notifications come from the hallway and the lounge.

MIT Advisory: Friday classes cancelled & undergraduate move-out by Sunday. See emergency.mit.net for more info, including reimbursements & additional resources.

The voices on my floor went silent. Party music played in the background. A beat passed.

After everyone had read the message, chaos ensued. Half the students were immediately on the phone with their parents, crying, and half the students decided it was time to party even more. Everyone who had booked Wednesday flights out of Boston now had to prepare to pack everything in their dorm rooms and buy new flights to leave by Sunday at noon.

I got a message from the Maseeh Area Director and Heads of House — emergency House Team Meeting, now. Our job? Calm everyone down.

Full-blown panic set in when a student received an email from a family friend. The friend claimed that their parents knew someone who worked in the Pentagon and that the US government was planning on closing all state borders and shutting down all airports on Sunday morning. Now I know that this was a part of a targeted misinformation campaign, orchestrated by parties external to the US. At the time, however, I was starting to realize how serious this virus was. I told my students that if they could manage to leave on Saturday, they should. There was no harm in being extra cautious.

I stayed up until 4AM that night, making myself available to my anxious students. By the time I woke up the next day, everyone on my floor was gone. It was empty, and I was living alone in a hall meant for forty people.

That weekend, MIT made the decision to restrict access to campus, and I learned that I would be alone on my floor in Maseeh for some period. Little did I know it would be for months.

One year later, the feeling of being alone and on edge has never quite disappeared. Since then, I studied for and passed a virtual oral qualifying exam, finished my last required classes of my PhD, protested and went on strike for Black lives, and learned how to crochet, paint, make sourdough and kimchi, and brew kombucha.

Today, though, it feels like we are all still paused in that week in March where everything changed. I walk through the empty infinite corridor on the way back from working alone and masked in lab, and I pass all the flyers. From a meme of “it is Wednesday, my dudes” to reminders of application deadlines and new programs starting in April 2020, it is a time capsule from March. It takes me back to when it still seemed silly for a whole university to shut down because of a virus.

MIT froze in more ways than one in the past year!

*This story was originally published in the MIT Graduate Admissions Blog.

Atypical Physicist.

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