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Should we do this again? University of Michigan students and administrators are asking that exact question about the current hybrid semester ahead of the upcoming decision on whether to bring students back to campus in the winter semester.
Unlike the decision on the fall semester, which was announced in June during a state and nationwide lull in COVID-19 cases, the pandemic is headed in the wrong direction. The United States just registered its greatest single-day case increase — nearly 100,000 cases in a 24-hour period — and Dr. Anthony Fauci told The Washington Post recently that the country “could not be positioned more poorly” going into the winter.
Despite the challenges of the fall hybrid semester — clusters in residence halls, strikes across campus in September and the two-week stay-in-place order — transmission outside of young people’s social gatherings remains low, according to University officials, and hospitalizations and deaths have not risen with cases.
According to University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, the University is looking at several factors for the winter semester decision.
“Among the considerations: health, safety and wellbeing of our community; lessons learned from the fall term related to teaching and learning; survey results from faculty, students and staff; and feedback from many different advisory groups on campus, students, faculty and staff,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email.
Fitzgerald added that COVID-19 testing “will be part of the plans.”
Students’ views on the hybrid semester are mixed. Six students interviewed by The Daily said they were in favor of attempting a hybrid semester again, two were opposed and one was indifferent. They expressed the wide range of sentiments across the student body as the community weighs the value of health and normalcy in a pandemic-marred college experience.
About 80% of undergraduate classes were held virtually at the start of the year, and with the recent order, only 10% maintain any in-person instruction. Some students rely on in-person classes for their major, like pre-med LSA sophomore Sophie Boock, who has labs that can’t be taken virtually.
“To be able to still go in once every three weeks and have that hands-on experience has been great,” Boock said.
LSA senior Jacob Katzman also relies on in-person labs and said he wouldn’t be in Ann Arbor next semester if it was entirely virtual.
“If I can’t get into the lab, I can’t do my thesis, so it would definitely set me back if we weren’t allowed to come in,” Katzman said. “I’m very grateful we’re allowed to come in this semester.”
Others found in-person classes less essential, like Kyra Freeman, a Public Health graduate student, who opted into virtual classes after the first few weeks for convenience. LSA freshman Jenny Nam lives in East Quad Residence Hall and said she became more hesitant to attend in-person classes when cases in her residence hall started rising.
“I was definitely a lot more nervous being in my dorm because we started getting a lot of emails about how we were getting a new COVID case like every day, so then I was like, ‘Oh, so many people are stuck in one dorm building, it could spread really fast,’” Nam said.
LSA junior Shivang Chandna said his off-campus apartment is a sunk cost, but he’d wait and watch public health metrics before deciding to move back for the winter.
“If they do go a hundred percent remote and things are okay here, I definitely want to be back, because I love the city — I love everything about it — but if cases keep going up and it’s a hundred percent online, I’d rather be back home,” Chandna said.
U-M administration has cited the high proportion of students with off-campus leases as justification for the hybrid fall semester. With a link to the physical campus, administrators argued, students would be more likely to follow public health guidelines.
Most students The Daily spoke with said they would be back in Ann Arbor regardless of next semester’s format, including LSA sophomore Sam Pinkus. The time difference between Michigan and her California home would put her synchronous 8 a.m. class at 5 a.m.
“Already looking into remote learning for the week after Thanksgiving is a little daunting,” Pinkus said. “There’s definitely like an academic feeling (on campus) still, so I think it’s easier to get things done here than at home.”
LSA senior Eliot Giannoni said he’ll be back in Ann Arbor regardless to “finish off the college experience.” However, he said connecting with people has been harder this year.
“I can only imagine for freshmen just coming on campus for the first time and not really knowing anyone, that’s got to be difficult,” Giannoni said. “Academically, it’s been hard as well to connect with your peers on a group assignment.”
But engineering sophomore Mohammed Kashan said he thinks the winter semester should be entirely virtual for the safety of students and others close to campus.
“It would be safer because to be honest, with people that are as young as undergrads, and even grad students, it’s hard to understand what this virus is doing,” Kashan said.
Most students who favored another hybrid semester said the University needs to make changes for the winter. Some noted the lack of communication, like Chandna, who said he has seen “disorganization” with the recent case escalation and stay-in-place order.
“I mean, literally three or four weeks ago they were like, ‘Do in-person events up to 25 people’ and this and that,” Chandna said. “And then fast forward to now, we’re under lockdown, cases are going up and I don’t think this is going to improve.”
Pinkus said it’s also been hard for her to keep up with the University’s changing public health guidance.
“We just get a new email every day with new rules and regulations regarding COVID and what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do,” Pinkus said. “Obviously the world is changing every day and the school’s trying to keep up with that, but just having more clear communication with students (would be helpful).”
Othera said the University needed a more robust testing plan to bring students back next semester. University President Mark Schlissel has repeatedly defended the initial plan that did not test off-campus students who were asymptomatic upon their arrival to Ann Arbor. A community sampling testing program now tests over 3,000 community members per week, but the program didn’t reach 1,000 weekly tests until a month into the semester.
Outside of the surveillance testing programs, if students have a COVID-19 scare and want immediate testing, they have to have symptoms or be a close contact of a positive case. Nam noted that many go off-campus to get tested, leading to a lag in reporting cases.
“I know people have had experiences where they’ve had a lot of trouble trying to get tested for COVID,” Nam said. “I feel like if they made it a lot easier and made it a lot more accessible, that would be a lot better, but it would also expose the fact that they’re getting a lot of COVID cases, so they probably don’t want to do that.”
Chandna said he couldn’t say yet what the University should do because it depends entirely on its testing capacity.
“If they are equipped enough to handle another semester hybrid with random testing, more rapid testing, then of course hybrid — otherwise, 100% online is the way to go,” Chandana said.
Overall, Nam said, COVID-19 is going to be a part of the winter semester no matter what, so the state of campus will depend on whether people follow public health guidelines.
“Obviously we’re not going to get the experience that we were supposed to get if COVID was not a thing, but I think that rather than depending on the University as a whole to just take care of things, like everything, it would be nice for the entire community to also work towards being more careful and following safety guidelines,” Nam said.
Boock said even with all of the turmoil of the last few months, the fall semester is better than it would’ve been if students weren’t allowed back on campus.
“I always think there’s room for more improvement, but I think we can take this and keep going,” Boock said. “We love it here — we came back for a reason.”
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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