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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins defended fall semester COVID-19 guidelines in a Thursday email to concerned faculty, stating that “perhaps the safest place to be on campus this fall will be in the classroom.”

“Stellar rates of vaccination, paired with an indoor face-covering requirement for all, make the classroom a very safe learning environment for instructors and students,” Schlissel and Collins wrote.

The message Thursday was sent in response to an Aug. 26 faculty petition asking the University administration to provide more stringent COVID-19 guidelines for the fall semester. More than 740 instructors signed the petition, which requested more flexibility for instructors to teach remotely, mandatory testing for all members of the campus community, six feet of social distancing between people and a mandatory 14-quarantine period for vaccinated close contacts of positive cases.

In response, Schlissel and Collins wrote that multiple prevention strategies — such as indoor face mask requirements, increased air ventilation and the ResponsiBlue app — are part of a layered approach to mitigating COVID-19 spread. 

Course instruction methods have been evaluated by individual schools and colleges within the University, according to Schlissel and Collins, and those units have control over the amount of in-person, hybrid and online classes that are offered. 

In terms of individual COVID-19 concerns for instructors, Schlissel and Collins wrote that faculty should contact Work Connections, the University’s disability management program, to report their personal disability or medical conditions.

But a group of faculty calling themselves “community advocates” wrote in an email to fellow petitioning faculty Friday that the University was still not providing the autonomy to make decisions based on their risk assessments.

“We are also disappointed that we have again been directed to Work Connections, a unit that has rejected numerous requests by instructors with serious pre-existing conditions, compromised immunity, and other risk factors, or who have family members with various vulnerabilities (including children too young to be vaccinated),” the faculty group wrote.

92% of students and 90% of faculty are fully vaccinated, and Schlissel and Collins wrote that information on students who are unvaccinated in classes would be shared when and if the indoor face covering policy is lifted. Schlissel and Collins wrote they believe there are enough COVID-19 mitigation policies in place to safely conduct in-person classes.

“Living and working through a pandemic is unsettling,” Schlissel and Collins wrote. “It’s unpredictable and, yes, it involves an unavoidable level of risk. As an institution, we believe we have taken all appropriate measures to mitigate that risk for you, your faculty colleagues, your students and the staff members.”

Schlissel and Collins wrote that everything involves a level of risk that has to be balanced against the importance of other tasks.

“We all recognize the risk of auto crashes, yet most of us accept that risk by driving to campus each day to teach, serve others, or help patients heal,” Schlissel and Collins wrote.

The “community advocates” took issue with the comparison to driving, saying that faculty are not forced to drive to work the same way they are being pushed to go back to in-person teaching. 

The faculty group also wrote that Schlissel and Collins’ message did not address most of their critiques of existing procedures. They said in-person teaching without taking the measures outlined in their petition is a risk to faculty. 

“Many of the policies in place strike us as an alpha variant response to a delta variant world,” the faculty group wrote.

Schlissel and Collins’ statement on classrooms being the “safest place on campus” also received negative feedback from the faculty group, which said there is no documentation of classrooms being safe from COVID-19 transmission. 

“We are dismayed by President Schlissel’s repetition of the assertion that classrooms are ‘perhaps the safest place to be on campus this fall,’ which, to the best of our knowledge, has not been documented,” the faculty group wrote. “We are disappointed that President Schlissel has not provided detailed information on our classroom environments, such as the percentage of students in our classes who are vaccinated.”

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