On March 17, students received an email from University of Michigan Housing titled “URGENT: Petition to Remain in Housing.” The email, asking students “who truly have no other alternatives” to submit a request to remain in student housing by 8 a.m. the next day or lose building access, drew fire for the short notice and for backtracking on the University’s previous statement that students would be allowed to stay in the dorms. Further, the information in the email was not communicated to faculty, leaving professors blindsided and oblivious to the stressful situations their students had been placed in. The following day, Housing sent an email apologizing for the confusion and clarified that students had indeed not been required to move out at 8 a.m. that day. They offered support for students moving out and outlined the procedure for those who chose to stay in the dorms.
In these unprecedented times, we understand that no response on the part of the administration is perfect. Given how rapidly the situation changed with each new day, the University was forced to weigh the public health risks of leaving dorms open while accommodating students who were either unable to leave or had to coordinate arrangements in moving out. However, times of crisis call for clear and transparent communication. The array of emails and follow-up emails that students received from varying sources often failed to convey transparency and specificity in the University’s actions, creating confusion that could have been avoided had the administration simply been more clear and specific about their intentions in the original email. This undue stress and confusion only amplify students’ anxiety as they scramble to arrange flights, pack up belongings and adjust to online classes.
Further, professors were left in the dark. Many had planned to carry on classes and exams during or soon after the time that students were moving out and were shocked and indignant that they, as professors, had received no information about this policy from the University. The multiple sources of information only added to the confusion as students received a number of emails regarding housing changes from Housing, the LSA Dean‘s Office and the Office of the Vice President of Student Life, making it difficult to discern the real authority on the matter. We believe that the confusion could be eliminated by creating a single, centralized source on behalf of the University administration to disseminate information regarding COVID-19 updates and protocol, like U-M Public Affairs’ COVID-19 information website, and only releasing information from that source and email address. In addition, the University should create better interdepartmental communication systems to ensure moving forward that professors are aware of the information their students are receiving and able to accommodate accordingly.
While the policies put in place were necessarily reactionary, reflecting the rapidly escalating nature of the situation, we believe that the rapid response failed to account for the precarious food and housing situations of many students and jeopardized their safety and well-being. The vague terminology of “students who truly have no other alternative” raises questions as to which students are included and excluded, particularly for students with unsafe home conditions. The policy thrusts these students into a situation that could compromise their mental health and safety. In attempting to account for these students, the Maize & Blue Cupboard remains open and the University has consolidated residential hall services to West Quad Residence Hall and South Quad Residence Hall and dining services to South Quad.
The coronavirus has forced everyone, including students, faculty and University administrators to improvise and adjust in our current disorder. Though the University’s response has fallen short at times, we as students need to understand that the administration doesn’t have all the answers right now. Their actions reflect continued efforts to communicate with the student body and make accommodations without jeopardizing public health, namely by providing a partial refund for housing and meal plan expenses, keeping select dorms and dining halls open and offering free packing and storage services to students. In the end, no response that the University comes up with will be perfect and we should try to manage our reactions to each successive email that is released. However, this means we should learn from the shortcomings of the University’s initial response. Moving forward, the administration should reflect on students’ struggles in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to prepare better response protocols should future crises arise, and to make sure that communication from here on out is clear, accurate and widespread.