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Hundreds of faculty and Graduate Student Instructors at the University of Michigan have signed onto a petition calling for more detailed COVID-19 guidelines, a universal remote teaching option and more social distancing and testing requirements for all members of the campus community.
The petition, which first began circulating Aug. 24, cites evidence pointing to increased transmission of COVID-19 and 68% more hospitalizations in Michigan today than from two weeks ago. The petition also highlights the growing threat of the Delta variant and uncertainties regarding vaccine protection over time.
“In light of the rapidly changing and dynamic situation, the University’s recently-adopted vaccination and mask rules, while appropriate earlier this month, already are insufficient,” the petition reads. “With case numbers climbing, we therefore publish this petition to indicate areas of concern and suggest additional specific protocols to ensure community safety.”
The petition includes requests for more information, such as transparency on the metrics that would cause the University to shift to 100% remote instruction, data on indoor air ventilation and how many students are vaccinated in in-person classes.
The University updated their metrics used to monitor the spread of COVID-19 on Monday for the first time since September 2020. The new metrics focus on monitoring disease transmission, public health strain and strain on local health systems. If any of the new metrics are met, a review of public health data by the Campus Health Response Committee is triggered, but there aren’t specifics on what would cause instruction to go remote.
The petition asks for broader criteria for instructors to elect to teach their classes remotely. It also requests more implementation of mitigation procedures in classrooms, such as required testing twice a week, allowing six feet of space between each person in a room and a mandatory 14-day quarantine policy for vaccinated close contacts of positive cases.
As of Aug. 31, one week after the petition was distributed, more than 700 faculty and graduate student instructors have signed onto the petition.
University President Mark Schlissel, Provost Susan Collins and the Board of Regents were presented with the petition on Aug. 30. According to Engineering professor Michael Atzmon, one of the petition’s initiators, a University staff member acknowledged the petition was received but the petitioners have not received a direct response from Schlissel or Collins as of Monday afternoon.
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said in an email to The Michigan Daily that the University plans to directly respond to the petition organizers and emphasized the safety of in-person classrooms this fall. The University’s current plan requires all students and faculty to be vaccinated. Everyone is also required to wear masks in all indoor campus buildings.
“One important point that our campus public health experts have shared is that the classroom may be the safest place on campus this fall with 92 percent of students fully vaccinated, 89 percent of faculty fully vaccinated and everyone – regardless of vaccination status – wearing a face covering,” Broekhuizen wrote.
According to Broekhuizen, ventilation of University buildings has been checked and adjusted by the campus facilities team to increase fresh air flow, and air handling meets or exceeds requirements by the state of Michigan.
Atzmon wrote in an email to The Daily the current plan for the in-person semester reveals no information about how the University plans to pivot in case of an emergency outbreak. He wrote he feels there is also a lack of clear guidelines for quarantining and testing.
Atzmon wrote he does not believe the protection and new metrics established by the University is adequate but also wrote he understands students’ desire to return to in-person classes.
“(Virtual learning) was stressful for everybody, not ideal,” Atzmon wrote. “Student motivation varied. I understand why a student would feel cheated out of the opportunity to learn under normal conditions and the college experience.”
Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak, one of the 24 faculty members who led the creation of the petition, told The Daily in an email that she is particularly concerned about the highly contagious delta variant as the semester approaches.
“Vaccine potency is waning and not as protective as we anticipated,” Modrak wrote. “There’s no articulated plan for a positivity rate that would trigger a shift to virtual, and I’m concerned about the safety of everyone in high density classrooms, and students and staff in dining halls.”
Modrak wrote that many faculty members are concerned about putting their loved ones at risk of getting sick by teaching in person and are seeking a virtual learning option.
Over the past three semesters, Modrak wrote, instructors have worked tirelessly to ensure that students receive adequate instruction while learning remotely. But now, Modrak wrote she thinks the faculty’s online work has become irrelevant.
“Virtual learning gave me an opportunity to imagine new projects, and to examine how I communicated information, and my students created remarkable works,” Modrak wrote. “In some ways, I feel like we’re going two steps backward. Now we’re being told, essentially, to act as if we never developed this pedagogical expertise and innovation.”
Despite safety concerns, some students, like LSA sophomore Melissa Caster, are anxiously anticipating their in-person classes. Caster said student participation and motivation lagged during fully remote classes last year.
“I definitely think that the University could be more clear with sharing their plans for if there is a COVID outbreak,” Caster said. “However, I am so excited to be able to attend my classes in-person for the first time. I think that it is great that everyone will be masked and vaccinated on campus.”
Daily Staff Reporter Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.