The beginning of the 2020 fall semester has been difficult for students, staff and faculty alike. Current freshmen at the University of Michigan have faced numerous challenges adjusting to college life, from the latest cluster of cases in South Quad Residence Hall to the strikes undertaken by the Graduate Employees’ Organization and resident advisers. This unconventional start to the school year has had wide-ranging impacts across campus, but freshmen bear the brunt of it without a baseline for a typical college experience.

LSA freshman Caleb Zheng said going to college is already an adjustment, but doing so during the pandemic has added a new obstacle.

 “My first few weeks on campus have really revolved around being able to adjust to this new independence and freedom in a completely different setting during a pandemic,” Zheng said.

During the first weeks of the semester, reports of unenforced move-in protocols meant to limit the number of people in residence halls and maintain social distancing raised fears that outbreaks on campus could grow. Despite the uncertainty, many students said they were looking forward to adjusting to a new environment and getting to experience life on campus. 

LSA freshman Isa Cirulis told The Michigan Daily she’s been pleasantly surprised by her experience on campus so far.

“The beginning of this semester has honestly gone a lot better than expected,” Cirulis said. “I don’t have a particular desire to go to large gatherings or social events, so I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing out on that aspect of the ‘college experience.’”

Though reports of people attending parties during the unofficial “Welcome Week” circulated online, many typical social activities like parties have been canceled this year. Students said they faced the added pressure of finding a social circle while adhering to public health guidelines. Currently, outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited in Washtenaw County.

LSA freshman Kimia Beigzadeh said new friendships have made the transition to college easier.

“Coming onto campus was nerve-wracking,” Beigzedah said. “(But) once you meet people you love to be around and make your day better, (campus is) kind of amazing.” 

Zheng said his peers have provided him with a support system.

“I think a highlight for me would have to be how welcoming everyone here is,” said Zheng. “I really felt like I was at home by the second week and everyone here is very friendly and I honestly have become very comfortable with my surroundings.”

Both Zheng and Cirulis both said they made friends on their floor and were able to find a sense of community on campus despite the social distancing requirements.

On Sept. 6, GEO began a nearly 10-day long strike in response to the University’s reopening plans. The union’s demands included the universal right to work remotely without documentation, more transparent testing plans and a diversion of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security to other community organizations. After University President Mark Schlissel asked the court to file an injunction against GEO to get members to return to work, GEO members voted overwhelmingly to end the strike.  

Zheng explained he felt supported by his professors and the campus at large during the strikes. 

“For the most part, all of my professors and GSIs were very understanding of if people wanted to support the strike and did not want to attend class,” Zheng said. “I have felt like the resources provided to me have all been helpful and I have been given the proper support.”

Students have also voiced concerns about the availability of and access to frequent testing. Currently, the University is testing all symptomatic students through University Health Services and conducting random, opt-in surveillance testing every week. Yet some public health experts have raised questions about the University’s testing plan, saying it may not be enough to detect and prevent future outbreaks. 

A cluster of COVID-19 cases was confirmed at South Quad Thursday, increasing anxieties about the potential for more cases on campus. In an email to the University community on Friday, Schlissel said all residents on the floors where cases were detected would undergo mandatory testing. 

After extensive investigation, the majority of the cases were found to be connected, but three cases are not associated and have no known source of exposure,” Schlissel wrote. “While this can happen at any time during a pandemic situation, we are taking additional measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the building.”

Students living on campus who test positive for the virus, are symptomatic or were in close contact with an infected person are being asked by the University to isolate in quarantine apartments on North Campus. Recently, students have complained about the state of quarantine housing, saying they did not receive adequate meals and that some of the apartments were left in unsanitary conditions. 

Some students said they felt the University could do more to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. Zheng said he wished there was required random surveillance testing for the entire campus community. 

“I think if random testing became mandatory for everyone people would immediately be less reckless and the anxieties of possibly getting COVID-19 would go down a lot,” Zheng said.

Cirulis also emphasized the desire for mass testing as a proactive rather than a reactive measure. 

“The cluster of cases in South Quad is definitely scary,” Cirulis said. “I wish mandatory testing had been implemented for the affected floors sooner.”

Freshmen — who often look forward to participating in fall sports or joining intramural teams — are also facing the cancellation of most sports. On Aug. 11, Big Ten presidents and chancellors voted to postpone fall sports. The league voted to reverse the decision to cancel fall football on Wednesday, saying the conference now has the ability to conduct daily rapid testing of all players. 

Cirulis, who rowed in high school, said the lack of rowing season at the University due to social distancing requirements dampened her optimism. 

“I think the most relevant way COVID precautions have impacted me personally is the cancellation of the rowing season,” Cirulis said. “I definitely understand this decision from a safety standpoint and know a lot worse things have and can happen surrounding the pandemic, but this still stays at the forefront of my mind.”

Schlissel has said that the current plans in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, including hybrid classes and the cancellation of many sports, will likely last the entirety of the academic year or until a safe and effective vaccine is developed. 

LSA freshman Kelly Deng said that while she feels like she’s missed out on a lot of the freshman experience, she’s hopeful about the coming semesters. 

“We’re already missing out on a lot of experiences,” Deng said. “My friends and I have been trying to stay safe in hopes that it will be better by next semester.”

Overall, Deng urged her fellow students to understand the gravity of being on campus during COVID-19.

“It’s frustrating to see people not taking precautions as seriously,” Deng said.

Daily Staff Reporter Sofia Urban can be reached at urbanso@umich.edu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

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