On July 30, one month before classes are set to begin, the University of Michigan announced a vaccination mandate for the fall semester. All students, faculty and staff — both in-person and remote — are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and must report this information to the University before the start of the semester. This decision comes in the wake of concerns about the delta variant and its potential to spread among vaccinated people, along with a recent increase of reported COVID-19 cases in Washtenaw County. Similarly, the University recently announced that starting yesterday, face coverings will be required in campus buildings regardless of vaccination status. Perhaps more controversially, the campus bus system shared an unofficial announcement in a now-unavailable Facebook post that bus service will remain limited this fall, especially on North Campus. While many are hoping for a return to normalcy this semester given the opening of residence halls and in-person classes, the recent COVID-19 uptick and the mask mandate indicate that we may not be able to expect a completely “normal” semester just yet.
The vaccination mandate was a pleasant and welcome surprise. However, it’s nothing without enforcement; there must be both incentives for complying and consequences for not. And while masking up isn’t ideal, it’s a worthy measure if it prevents us from going remote. As students, many of us expect — and perhaps demand — a return to normalcy, but we may need to test the water and temper expectations. If we are cautiously optimistic and taking swift, effective COVID-19 preventative measures when necessary, a successful fall semester can be within reach. Additionally, if the University plans to be mostly in person, they must ensure their bus service doesn’t leave many students without a way to get to class.
We absolutely support the University’s decision to mandate vaccination for all students and faculty, with medical and religious exemptions available. Although there are some concerns about the delta variant spreading among vaccinated individuals, the vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. have been among unvaccinated people. Vaccination promises the best chance at a somewhat normal semester; a high vaccination rate could prevent outbreaks, hospitalizations and injury, but also allow us to forgo some of the more disruptive aspects of pandemic learning such as social distancing and online classes. Similarly, masks are not ideal and slightly inconvenient, but they are much preferable to the alternative of going remote. Especially considering the mask policy is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidelines and makes exceptions for students in their own residence halls; wearing masks for at least the first few weeks of the semester is a reasonable measure. While we are eager to get back to the college experience we knew or anticipated, masks are a small concession that can greatly reduce COVID-19 cases, save lives and potentially prevent us from another semester on Zoom. Masking up is also a constant reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and while the urge to dive in headfirst after a year online is tempting, we need to test the water first.
Additionally, the University needs to implement real consequences for refusing to get vaccinated or wear masks, and they need to stick with them. One of the largest issues with the University’s COVID-19 plans last year was the lack of enforcement. While the University has limited control over student life off-campus, there needs to be tangible action if students are found to be in violation of their policies. More importantly, they need to support students who need help to meet these guidelines — such as providing masks and access to vaccination — and reward them for compliance. Finally, the University must acknowledge that not everyone is ready for a return to campus, and it should provide options for students, faculty and staff to work remotely when possible.
While many are excited to return to campus, the past year has shown us that there are several aspects of virtual education that are equivalent to, and may be better, than their in-person counterparts. Office hours and similar activities like advising appointments can and should remain online. The accessibility and efficiency of these meetings are boosted by utilizing virtual communication rather than face-to-face engagement. Inclement weather, sickness and other unexpected circumstances won’t stand in the way of holding these appointments. Plus, virtual appointments would make meetings go quicker if students only need a short consultation rather than a longer discussion. Further, the University can also learn from the online experience and be more accessible and accommodating to students who benefit from online learning. As much as online learning presents drawbacks to student mental health, it can be a tool that increases the accessibility of a prestigious higher education to the students who need it most. Low-income students would not necessarily need to reside in Ann Arbor, a city with a high cost of living, and those students with certain disabilities would benefit from a virtually accessible education, as well.
However, we’ve discovered that lectures may be more valuable than we realized before. Being situated within a learning environment can be crucial to the learning experience and effectiveness of teaching. Having to commute to a lecture hall rather than clicking a couple of buttons cultivates accountability to learning, as well. We have hopes that a return to the classroom will be an impetus for an educational renaissance. Several semesters away from the classroom have uncovered the benefits that in-person teaching bestows. If adequate COVID-19 precautions are implemented, this fall semester has the potential to reignite the sense of drive to learn within the students at the University of Michigan that was decimated by over a year of virtual learning.
For students who plan to be in-person, however, the University must reconsider its unofficially announced planned campus transportation, especially the bus routes connecting Central and North Campus. Continuing pandemic bus routes on North Campus means using satellite bus routes to travel, such as the Bursley-Baits Loop which is largely unused by students due to its inconvenience. Thus, requiring residents of the sprawling North Campus to board the Campus Connector at the single stop of Pierpont Commons (which they must walk a considerable distance to, especially in the winter) leaves students without necessary transportation. With thousands of North Campus residents potentially crowding at the single bus stop in order to get to classes on Central Campus, questions of timeliness for classes, accessibility and social distancing requirements at the bus stop arise. Frankly, expecting students to make the trek alone at night up the icy hills on North Campus shows disregard for student safety.
Thousands of students live on North Campus, including many freshmen; while unaware of the bus system, these students will have to take the bus to Central Campus, where many, if not all, of their classes are held. When classes were remote, the University provided satellite bus lines that went to different parts of North Campus — for a semester that is in-person, the lack of mandatory transportation to different parts of campus will inevitably create extreme traffic at Pierpont Commons, as well as a variety of other issues that affect student life. For the University to take away students’ only method of transportation to necessary classes, events and other tasks will severely alter North Campus for the worse. If the University plans to be in-person, it cannot leave students on North Campus out. We hope to see this reflected in their finalized transit plans.
Ultimately, while things are looking optimistic for this coming semester in comparison to last year, that optimism should be tempered with caution and realism. The pandemic isn’t over yet and current data on the disease are illustrating that vaccination and masks are still abundantly necessary. We appreciate the University’s updated COVID-19 policies, but also remind them that they are still earning back the student body’s trust after their failures last year. And on the student experience front, the unofficial bus plans don’t provide a promising outlook. As for students: Get vaccinated and report it before the fall, stock up on masks and be willing to test the water no matter how tempting it may be to dive straight in.