June 2020 was a time in which my mind wandered between wondering and worrying. As the summer months progressed, I spent my time constantly wondering when my days would cease to be relegated to the boundaries of my parents’ house, with the exception of an occasional walk around my neighborhood to get a change of scenery and keep my body moving. Moments that weren’t spent wondering about my future were spent worrying about it. Key moments and aspects of my life such as my college experience, graduation and the nature of my personal relationships all had question marks by them, and existing in this space of uncertainty riddled me anxious. At the same time, the socio-political world that I was immersed in was undergoing a similar tug-of-war. It was one that took place between those who prioritized controlling the spread of the virus and those who were focused on reviving the U.S. economy. The former group was willing to endure hits to the stock market for the sake of saving lives. The latter, on the other hand, desired the immediate reopening of businesses, despite the health risks such actions would cause, especially for non-white communities. Around this time, I, along with my peers, wondered what side the University of Michigan would be on.
On June 22, 2020, we got our answer. It was on that day University President Schlissel announced that the University was planning to have a public-health-informed fall semester. According to that day’s announcement, this would include a mix of online and in-person classes, residence halls and dining halls that would still be open to serving and housing students and an availability of activities that would enhance the student experience. The promise of a semi-regular semester placed a glimmer of hope in many students, myself included. After months of having virtually no social interaction outside of those I lived with, I marveled at the opportunity of being able to once again be immersed in a world of my peers. What made the deal sound even sweeter was the fact that both the president’s announcement and the resulting Maize and Blueprint webpage announced not only an expected return to campus, but also a promise to utilize effective public health measures, such as the expectation of social distancing and mask-wearing along with some level of COVID-19 testing, and a provision of quarantine housing in case students contracted the virus. This plan was marketed as a way to have the best of both worlds –– safety and the quintessential college experience. Maybe it was possible to fulfill these two seemingly opposed priorities.
This sense of cautious optimism was not long-lived. Within two weeks of move-in day, it was clear that the plan to ensure proper social distancing, mask wearing and other safety measures among students relied mainly on circulating a set of guidelines that students were encouraged to follow for the sake of themselves and those around them.
The only attempt that was made to enforce these public health practices came in the form of a student ambassador program, an initiative in which students who underwent an assigned training module were chosen to patrol campus neighborhoods to encourage students to follow proper public health safety measures. These ambassadors did not have the authority to enforce or deter any changes in the recurring instances of unsafe behavior such as partying or Fraternity & Sorority Life activities. However, concerning observations made by the ambassadors would be reported to the Division of Public Safety and Security, which initially would employ armed officers to de-escalate the situation. The use of minimally-trained students and police personnel to enforce guidelines brought about very reasonable concern about the potential of implicit bias and police harassment towards Black and brown students on campus. The threat of this program to the safety of non-white students was especially heightened at this time given the widely publicized instances of police brutality –– and the resulting protests –– that took place during the summer and beyond. The lack of trust and understanding between those administering the program and those who were supposed to be benefiting from it caused the program to not last beyond the first semester of its installation. The overall insensitive nature of the program, along with the increased sense of caution of police presence, ignited resistance of the student ambassadors from many student groups, which eventually led to the recalling of this program.
To make matters worse, the lack of protection and transparency given to student employees led to almost simultaneous strikes from both the Graduate Student Instructors and resident advisers, as well as labor action from dining hall workers, all lasting at least a week apiece. Additional controversy also ensued over the quality of quarantine housing provided by the University. A student’s complaints about the cold food, roaches and dirty clothes in the apartment that they were sent to quarantine in strengthened looming concerns that this return to campus was premature. In fact, at the peak of the mayhem, the University was regularly reporting a total of at least 150 new cases of the virus each week. This made it abundantly clear that this public-health-informed semester was anything but. The efforts put in by the University did not lie at the intersection of the safety we needed and the experience we all wanted. It was chaos.
Fast forward to March 12, 2021, when President Schlissel again announced plans for a responsible return to campus for the Fall of 2021. The announcement mentions expectations for not only in-person classes, but of a greater occupancy of the student dorms and in-person dining at the University’s dining halls. As someone who will graduate in 2022 and who has a desire to end my college experience in the same place that I started it in, I was initially tempted to sit in feelings of excitement and anticipation when reading this announcement. However, before I was able to succumb to my emotions, a question arose that I couldn’t ignore: Will this plan end the same way it did last year?
Admittedly, there are many things different about this year that could cause a better end result. First and foremost, three vaccines for the COVID-19 virus have been tested, approved and distributed to people in the U.S. with more and more citizens becoming eligible for it as the months go on. In light of this, Schlissel’s plan for an in-person semester is based on the condition that enough of the student body decides to get vaccinated, though the announcement does not mention a specific proportion or how it plans to monitor and enforce vaccinations. Additionally, the announcement mentions that these reopening plans were inspired by the decrease in cases and hospitalizations both on the University’s campus and across the nation as a whole. Near the end of the message, there were statements about the current development of safety protocols to ensure the safety of in-person interactions on campus. “Campus leaders are continuing to engage with many groups of students, faculty and staff to help inform the framework for our aspirations for the fall,” the president’s message reads. This community-based approach to reopening the campus, which was not present this time last year, is followed by a commitment: As new information arises, the administration “will continue to discuss those developments with you (the University community).”
Overall, the University administration’s plans for Fall 2021 seem to be more influenced by public health considerations, as opposed to the urge to return to a more traditional campus environment, a factor that seemingly shaped their plans for Fall 2020. However, the final say of the effectiveness of efforts will come in the following months, as we become more privy to the protocols that are currently in the works by campus leaders, groups of students and faculty. It will be imperative that the U-M administration shows that the systems they have in place to offer a safe yet worthwhile campus environment includes efforts that are strict yet equitable, and that clear communication is given to all relevant parties throughout the process to prevent chaos from striking again.
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