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To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Michigan is putting together a fall semester unprecedented in the school’s history. Classes will be largely online, tables in the newly opened Michigan Union are six feet apart and everyone on campus will be wearing masks.
Students and faculty aren’t sure what to expect, and many questions remain unanswered with two weeks to go before classes start.
The Michigan Daily asked University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald about COVID-19 outbreak scenarios, testing and tracing, behavior enforcement, facilities and housing. Here’s what we do and don’t know about the University’s plans to bring students back to campus.
What transmission and/or case number thresholds is the University evaluating to trigger courses of action?
Fitzgerald did not offer a specific threshold. Instead, the office said the University monitors a number of factors and consults with health officials in making decisions.
“Among these factors are the spread of COVID-19 locally and regionally; the capacity of area hospitals; campus isolation capacity; contact tracing other factors,” Fitzgerald wrote. “University health officials will consider the current state in all of these areas when making any future decisions.”
At what point would the University move to all online classes?
Fitzgerald declined to provide a specific threshold.
“This is not something that can be prescribed in advance,” he wrote.
In an interview with The Daily last week, University President Mark Schlissel said “There’s no single number” that would force campus to shut down again.
If the University moved to all online classes would residence halls remain open?
“It is very difficult to determine in advance what decisions may be appropriate depending on the situation at any point in time,” Fitzgerald wrote.
When classes initially went remote at the start of the pandemic, students living in dorms and residence halls scrambled to make accommodations amid uncertainty surrounding University policy. At one point residents received an email that made it seem like they would be forced to move out of their housing unless they “truly have no other alternatives.” The University Housing team later apologized for the confusion and clarified that they would not be required to leave. The University eventually refunded students who left their dorms or residence halls $1,200.
Fitzgerald also declined to answer if students would receive prorated refunds if residence halls before the end of the semester.
“It’s just not possible to know what the situation might be in the future and determine now what that decision would be,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Testing and Tracing
How fast will the turnaround time on tests need to be to effectively contact trace on campus?
Fitzgerald did not specify a turnaround time for testing, saying only said that it will be “fast” and performed through Michigan Medicine.
The University will test symptomatic students and community members as well as those without symptoms under specific circumstances, including those who suspect they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or who are in a high-risk profession.
The University plans to test all residential students pre-arrival. However, Schlissel said in a faculty town hall last week that the University would not regularly test all students.
"This notion that a university at the scale of Michigan can test everybody a couple times a week or every day, right now, that's science fiction," Schlissel said.
A comparable public university such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will test all students and faculty participating in in-person classes twice weekly. When asked about other universities' plans to regularly test students, Schlissel said those plans aren't proven to be effective.
"What I'm nervous about is deploying a test that may only be right 50 percent of the time," Schlissel said.
Public health professionals, including the University’s own experts, have highlighted the need for rigorous and widespread testing to trace and contain the virus.
David Hutton, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Michigan Radio in April that contact tracing and expanded testing would be important in curtailing the spread of COVID-19.
“I think we’re missing a ton of people who are actually infected, both symptomatically and asymptomatically infected, so that’s why we really need to get the numbers down, and we need to have a lot of testing capacity to make sure that we can find all of those infected people,” he said.
Will campus COVID-19 data be publicly available?
Other universities have public dashboards to track COVID-19 cases among students and faculty. The University of Michigan does not have one yet, but Fitzgerald said a dashboard is “very close to being made available publicly.” It will display campus testing and positivity rates on the Maize & Blueprint website.
Will tests provided by the University be free to students?
The University is working with Quest Diagnostics, a national testing company, to screen returning students for coronavirus. Students living in campus residence halls will receive pre-arrival testing “at no cost,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Will students living off campus be tested before the semester begins too? If so, how will they receive testing kits?
“Students living in off-campus housing will not undergo pre-arrival screening for reasons that include different arrival times – with many having been here most of the summer – and differing living arrangements,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The University “is planning an opt-in randomly-sampled surveillance testing program for the campus community.”
Students can self-report COVID-19 test results from outside University Health Service or Michigan Medicine at the UHS website. Students, faculty and staff will use a daily symptom checker tool with a short questionnaire for COVID-19 symptoms. The app will inform those with symptoms of the appropriate steps to take.
How often will students be tested if they opt for randomly-sampled surveillance testing?
Fitzgerald did not provide a specific answer, writing that “Details of this program are still being developed.”
How will the University enforce the campus-wide mask mandate?
“Repeated failure to follow the face covering policy may result in sanctions,” Fitzgerald wrote. Community members can remind each other of the mask policy, deny service to those not complying and, for “repeated noncompliance,” contact a resource such as a “housing hall director, Student Organization Advancement and Recognition, Dean of Students Office, chair/director/workplace supervisor.”
Will the University enforce social distancing in residence halls and on campus?
Fitzgerald did not clarify who will be responsible for enforcing social distancing.
At a town hall earlier this month, DPSS executive director Eddie Washington discussed hiring student ambassadors, who will be tasked with attending social events and informing the DPSS hotline of cases of non-compliance.
“DPSS postures that we are hoping to dispatch, sooner than later, student leaders into that space,” Washington said.
In an interview last week, Schlissel pushed back against the idea that the student ambassadors would be an arm of DPSS.
“And you know, this ambassador program, it’s not really an extension of the police or something, it’s students, such as yourselves, that volunteer or student employees that already work for us in buildings around the campus, where we make sure they know the rules, and we make sure they feel empowered to remind somebody,” Schlissel said.
Will the University enforce social distancing in affiliated off-campus fraternity and sorority life?
“Affiliated chapters are expected to adhere to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and University guidelines and State directives for social distancing and restricting group sizes,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Fitzgerald did not disclose enforcement protocols for social distancing in affiliated off-campus fraternity and sorority life.
“Each council is working to assess and revise risk management practices for gatherings and events, with plans forthcoming to specifically address previously large-scale activities,” Fitzgerald wrote.
What disciplinary actions will be handed out for violating the mask mandate or social distancing mandates?
Fitzgerald did not specify disciplinary sanctions for violating the mandates. The office said situations could be handled through the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.
What role will the Division of Public Safety and Security and the University of Michigan Police Department play in enforcing the mask mandate and social distancing guidelines?
Fitzgerald did not provide details about the role of DPSS and UMPD in enforcement.
“We encourage anyone to call the police in the case of an emergency,” he wrote.
In an interview with The Daily last week, Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor, when asked about the role of the Ann Arbor Police Department in enforcing social distancing, said, “enforcement is really going to be our last resort.”
What physical distancing requirements will be implemented in libraries and other common spaces and buildings?
Fitzgerald did not list specific physical distancing requirements for libraries and other common spaces and buildings. The office said the University has implemented protocols for “aggressive cleaning” and managing building access.
“Our collective safety requires we all do our part by practicing strong personal hygiene habits, wearing a face covering when appropriate, maintaining a physical distance of six (6) feet and staying home when sick,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The University recently reopened student unions with adjustments to facilitate social distancing. In the Michigan Union, tables and chairs were spaced out with notices posted around the building.
What in-person programs and services will Recreational Sports facilities provide?
University Recreational Sports facilities might reopen for the fall semester if state regulations allow for it, according to Fitzgerald. Gyms must remain closed under the governor’s orders.
How are bus riders expected to practice social distancing on buses?
Fitzgerald referred The Daily to a University Record story on buses. While the article does not explicitly mention social distancing, it notes that by only allowing seated riders, capacity per bus will be reduced from 76 to 40.
Riders will be required to wear face coverings and use the rear doors to board and exit. Bus windows will remain open throughout each ride. Plexiglass has been installed as a barrier between riders and drivers. Newly introduced shorter bus routes will limit ride time to 15 minutes or less. Cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces will take place daily.
Where will on and off-campus quarantine and isolation spaces be located?
Fitzgerald did not disclose where these spaces will be located but wrote the University has space for 600 students at a time. Students may quarantine or isolate at home if they live nearby. Students in isolation will have single rooms and meals provided by Michigan Dining.
Public Affairs added that students on campus who develop symptoms and/or test positive for COVID-19 should contact University Health Services at 734-764-8320 and isolate. The CDC offers the following guidance on how to isolate.
Daily Staff Reporter Calder Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.