‘Warzone’: MIT Students Enraged by Coronavirus Banishment 1

The backlash to coronavirus panic has arrived in Cambridge.

Students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology staged a sit-in Thursday morning against the school’s plans to send people home over concerns of infection from the novel 2019 coronavirus.

According to organizers, about 50 people—undergraduates, graduate students, and a few faculty—rallied at MIT’s Department of Student Life starting around 9 a.m.

“We’re asking that MIT guarantee that all international students receive housing on U.S. soil and revisit the petitions of students who asked to remain on campus,” said Lilly Chin, a graduate student who helped organize the action. “That’s the minimum. There’s also been no discussion of how people can pay for their flights home, the boxes and storage. There’s been no official response, and we’ve love to see more leadership on that.” 

Skye Thompson, another organizer and an undergraduate student, echoed her statements: “The biggest priority is that international students aren’t evicted and homeless.”

The protesters cut six-foot-long pieces of string and used them to maintain the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-recommended distance from one another—and reduce their risk of infection—organizers explained in an interview.

The protest grew out of a late night mass email about exemptions from Chin sent Wednesday, as she helped an undergraduate friend move out. 

“The dorm was a warzone. Everyone was confused and packing frantically. My friend said, ‘All of my family is in China, but they denied my application to stay,’” Chin told the Daily Beast. “When I started asking people about their applications for exemptions, I kept hearing similar stories.” Dozens of students replied describing their own situations, she said.

The university did not respond to a request for comment on its policies or the protest. Chin said faculty from 12 departments have reached out to organizers in support of their cause.

The virus, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, has infected more than 127,000 people and killed 4,700 worldwide. It’s upended daily life around the world, forcing millions into quarantine as entire countries like Italy impose lockdown to contain infections. Some of the United States’ largest companies like Google have banished employees from their offices, and many of the country’s most beloved entertainment organizations like Disneyland and the National Basketball Association have closed or halted normal activity until further notice

Colleges nationwide have taken similar measures and overthrown academic routine. MIT president Rafael Reif announced March 10 that all undergraduate students would be required to vacate student housing by March 17. He asked students not to return to campus after spring break as online instruction began, potentially keeping them away from campus for the remainder of the year. 

MIT students could apply for exceptions to the policy so as to be able to stay on campus. But protesters said that the criteria for special dispensation were too strict because many who applied—citing fear of infection upon returning home or elderly relatives—were denied.

“It seems that under the administration’s current stance, anything short of testing positive for COVID-19 is not sufficient to be granted an exemption,” wrote Joshua Torres, an undergraduate in the class of 2023, in a document widely circulated among the protesting students. 

Organizers collected testimonials examples from students who had applied for exemption and been rejected. Several had family in China, the original location of the outbreak, one feared infecting a sick elderly relative, and others were uncertain they would be able to return to the U.S.

“MIT should not have this kind of power over matters of life and death,” Torres wrote. “MIT should not be denying critical exemptions.”