The University of Michigan announced the decision to cancel in-person classes three days after students returned from Spring Break, initiating a wave of uncertainty and concern.
On March 5, four days before classes resumed from Spring Break, University President Mark Schlissel and Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani sent an email to the University community addressing COVID-19 precautions and recommendations the University planned to implement. The email included details regarding relaxing documentation requirements and grade penalties for students missing class, as well as self-isolation tips, illness prevention and campus preparation.
Public Health senior Josie Lee, president of Curis Public Health Advocacy, said she was concerned with the initial response the University issued to students returning from Spring Break.
“(From) studying public health, we see that we can save a lot more money if we’re preventative than if we’re reactionary,” Lee said. “I’m kind of surprised, I felt like knowing that this was happening in the U.S., and knowing the potential that Spring Break could have in bringing the virus to Michigan, I’m surprised that the University didn’t take better-standardized protocol or tell their faculty how they could prepare — maybe even making them have plans with how they could move their courses online.”
Public Health senior Emily Benedict shared similar sentiments. She worried about the spread of COVID-19 following Spring Break, considering many students traveled to areas affected by the virus.
“In my mind, it’s very unlikely that no one came back from spring without an outbreak in their system,” Benedict said. “I just feel like having classes those few days potentially allowed for it to spread. I feel like maybe over spring break there should have been more preparation and discussion knowing people are going to be coming back from areas that may have had the virus.”
On Friday afternoon, a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in student apartment building Vic Village-North on Central Campus through an email sent to residents by the leasing office.
Upon return from Spring Break, Lee said she felt her classes were not affected by the precautionary measures the University recommended in the email. She noted the limited actions her classes took and the potential for students to not follow self-isolation protocols.
“I think the warnings from the school, just the emails that we got from the provost, the deans of our schools or the president — it was something that I wonder if it was enough,” Lee said. “When I was going to my classes, some of my classes didn’t even entirely mention how they were going to handle the situation, or they didn’t even discuss it, and I feel like some of the people in those areas might not have self-isolated, and there might not have been proper protocols, so I feel like the warning the school gave to the students might have not been as explanatory, or telling, of why it was important.”
On March 11, three days after Spring Break, Schlissel announced the cancellation of in-person classes and transition to remote instruction. In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen addressed factors that prompted the University to announce this change.
“Our goals are to deliver on our mission while protecting health and safety by minimizing the potential spread of the disease, both within our community and in the broader society,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The changes we announced follow the general public health principle of limiting the interaction of people within larger groups to diminish disease transmission and protect everyone in our communities, particularly the most vulnerable.”
According to Broekhuizen, University health professionals have been closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19 for more than two months and will continue to share important updates as more information becomes available.
“There are daily meetings to assess the latest information and recommendations from the CDC and university leaders are exploring all options including remote learning, social distancing, etc,” Broekhuizen wrote. “These daily meetings started weeks ago and included representatives from many areas such as DPSS, Global Michigan, UHS, Dean of Students, the Provost’s Office, Enrollment Management, Michigan Medicine, Communications, General Counsel. There also is regular consultation with local, county and state public county health officials.”
Universities across the country have also taken action in response to local outbreaks. University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., became the first large university to cancel all in-person classes on March 6 and move to online instruction in light of COVID-19 concerns.
In-person cancellations are now a reality for many other universities, both in Michigan and nationally, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, Princeton University, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, among others.
In addition to moving to online classes for the rest of the semester, Harvard asked all students to vacate the campus by March 15, and not return from Spring Break. As a result, many domestic and international students scrambled to book flight tickets, causing strain on first-generation and low-income students.
Despite classes being moved online, the University of Michigan’s campus will remain open and functional, including dorms, residences halls and dining halls.
LSA senior Katrina Stalcup volunteers at the Maize and Blue Cupboard. She said roughly 100 people had come through to secure food and other items by around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, shortly after Schlissel announced that in-person classes were canceled. Stalcup said people should be sensitive to those still working at this time.
“People (should) be kind to custodial staff, be kind to people who are risking their health to keep the rest of us safe. We’ve been treated kind of disrespectfully today based off of new safety precautions that we have,” Stalcup said.
Rackham student Shelby Stadler said she goes to the Maize and Blue Cupboard weekly to pick up essential groceries. On Wednesday evening, Stadler said she noticed a shortage of items.
“There’s normally toilet paper and paper towels; there’s hardly anything left in the frozen section, so there’s no chicken,” Stadler said. “It seems like a lot of the shelves are empty, and I could imagine people came through here and got all of their stuff in advance for their corona prepping.”
Stadler is a Graduate Student Instructor for Environment 201: Ecological Issues and said she expects the class to use BlueJeans, a cloud-based conferencing service, to continue instruction for the rest of the semester.
“I think (moving to online classes) is probably for the best,” Stadler said. “I think maybe a little overkill, but at the same time I’d much rather be better safe than sorry on this … I just don’t think being in contact with each other is good right now.”
LSA freshman Johanna Bozic, who was shopping in Walgreens following the announcement that classes would be canceled, said the whole situation caught her off guard.
“It definitely was surprising,” Bozic said. “It was something that I thought was inevitable, but I actually — I don’t know, for some reason, I thought it wouldn’t happen and then it did. We just had our last freshman classes today, without even realizing that that was the last time we were going to be in a classroom. So it’s a little weird. I don’t know if it’s fully sunk in.”
Benedict said she understands how seniors may feel, as their time at the University is impacted by the cancellation. As University students begin to adjust to the new system of coursework, Benedict said the severity of COVID-19 and its implications on the community remains uncertain.
“As a Public Health student, I think it’s the right thing to do to limit interaction as much as possible, but it is kind of a bummer that as seniors, we didn’t know it was going to be our last day of classes here at Michigan,” Benedict said. “But I also understand that this is a necessary measure. My biggest reaction is that this should have happened sooner, because we had three full days of classes, with people coming back from spring break and being around each other, that are probably going to cause problems in the future that we just don’t know about.”
Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.