Just reopened again last year in January, the Michigan Union was a symbol of the University of Michigan community — a place typically bustling with students studying, attending an event or grabbing a bite to eat with classmates.
But walking into the Union now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there is not much chatter among students. Fewer students fill the building, and those who do must wear masks and sit at least six feet apart.
Since the fall 2020 semester, the Union — in addition to other common study spaces on campus — have had COVID-19 restrictions in place. Social distancing of at least six feet, reduced building hours and limited seating have all caused a complete shift from their typical, pre-pandemic environment.
“That’s really what the student unions are about, is bringing people together,” Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services, said. “There was a sense of vibrancy in those spaces and connectivity and liveliness and noise, and a lot of those things have just had to be paused or done really differently in a pandemic,”
This year, LSA sophomore Nicole Savitsky studies at the Ross School of Business almost every day. Last year, she studied at the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Union. Savitsky said hours in study spaces are noticeably shorter now compared to last year.
“On weekends, Ross closes at six (p.m.), which is really annoying,” Savitsky said. “And a bunch of other places close at six, so there’s kind of nowhere to go after that. A lot of people do all-nighters and work really late into the night, so you can’t really do that anymore (in campus spaces).”
Engineering junior Carla Voigt, who was recently elected Central Student Government vice president, works in her room in her off-campus home but said she occasionally travels to North Campus because the buildings are generally open later. However, Voigt said she is frustrated with the University administration’s policy of reduced hours because she cannot finish her studying on time. She also said buildings with specific computer software required for her engineering homework close early, leaving her without enough time to finish.
“I understand that (the U-M) administration wanted to cut down on costs because not as many students are going to these places, but at the same time, we should be providing resources for every student, whether or not it’s going to be incredibly utilized,” Voigt said. “I think that the marginal difference of hiring one employee to sit there and scan people in with the benefit of several more students being able to work through the work for how long they need to and finish their work is unquestioned.”
When asked about the pandemic restrictions in the unions, Pile said reduced hours in the unions are due to the increased time required for sanitation and a smaller student population on campus.
“I think we’re trying to make the best use of our resources possible for students and understanding that, unfortunately, we do have different cleaning protocols that have to be done now,” Pile said. “And so that means we have to clean spaces at a different rate and clean bathrooms in a different way than we used to and clean buildings in different ways than we have in the past, and it’s an unfortunate reality.”
Savitsky also described how Study Spaces at U-M — a system created by Information and Technology Services — allows students to reserve designated study rooms, seats and computer stations in buildings on campus during the pandemic. She said this resource has made finding a space to study with friends more difficult, as bookings only are allowed for individuals for safety reasons.
“Now you can’t really go study with friends in many places, unless you’re on the Diag or somewhere outside where it’s kind of up to you,” Savitsky said. “But within the actual school buildings, it’s really hard to find places to study with others, just because (of) the way the booking system is.”
Savitsky said many rooms, floors and even buildings are “closed off,” and the time limits to book a seat or space make it hard for her to complete all of her work in these spaces. Despite these downsides, Savitsky said the reduced number of people allotted in the buildings allows for a more peaceful environment.
“You can definitely get your own quiet environment, whereas last year, it was free and open to everyone and a lot more people would be coming here so it would be louder and hectic and harder to get a space,” Savitsky said. “But now there’s definitely somewhere you could find to go that’s quiet.”
Savitsky said the pressure to find a space on campus to study has contributed to her stress and anxiety.
“It definitely places a lot more stress on you because if you have to worry about ‘When am I going to get my work done?’ or ‘Where am I going to do my work?’, that’s not really something you should have to worry about, but that’s the case now,” Savitsky said.
Pile said Study Spaces data shows there is still a large amount of availability in buildings for students to study in.
“We’ve got fewer students on campus,” Pile said. “So, as we look at the study space usage like through the Study Spaces, I think students are really using that tool but there’s also lots of capacity still available that’s untapped, that we’re seeing in the usage data.”
When asked about her feelings regarding how limited hours and other COVID-19 restrictions in buildings have affected students’ academic performance and mental health, Pile acknowledged the stress it causes but said the University is limited by the state’s public health guidelines.
“I think this is a challenging environment for students — there’s certainly no doubt about that,” Pile said. “Our mission in the unions is community building, gathering and connecting. But, unfortunately, it has to look a little different these days, and certainly nobody loves that, but it’s the nature of the environment that we’re in.”
Voigt said she and Public Health junior Nithya Arun, incoming CSG president, included plans to continue the Study Spaces resource post-pandemic in their platform.
“As COVID is wrapping up, we definitely saw opportunity to continue to the Study Spaces website for students to be able to know how full a library is, when it’s going to be open and closed, and the printers that are near and around it so that you can figure out where to go for the resources that you need,” Voigt said.
Voigt said a system like Study Spaces is vital to students’ academic success at the University.
“First and foremost, all of us are here to go to school and get a degree and learn in our field, so it’s important that we facilitate that and help everyone with their own academic success,” Voigt said. “It’s a part of CSG’s job to help students have a really good education, and that starts with the resources that you get. I think that’s one of the big pluses of going to the University of Michigan: you get a lot of resources. And we want to make sure that those are the best for students and exactly what they need to do well in school.”
For Voigt, the most crucial component to Study Spaces is that accurate information must be updated routinely.
“One time during COVID, I wanted to print something and it was kind of late, but I went on the website with the printers and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s one open and it’s going to close in half an hour, but I can make it,’” Voigt said. “I walked over there, and my phone ended up dying in the process, and it had closed. And then I started walking to a bunch of other buildings trying to get this printed, and they were all closed, and then I was just far away from home with my phone dead at 11 p.m.”
As vaccines become more accessible, Pile anticipates next semester will be more promising, and that the unions will hopefully return to their normal, vibrant state.
“I feel like hope is coming with the availability of a vaccine, and I think we’re all hopeful that maybe fall is going to look different than it does today,” Pile said. “We will all be excited to get back to what we know and love, which is really creating opportunities for students to connect, engage, gather and build community on campus.”
Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.