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Over the past few months, an abnormal quiet has persisted across our campus. After the University’s switch to entirely-remote instruction in mid-March, many students and other members of the campus community returned home, leaving behind mainly permanent residents. After 6 months away from Ann Arbor, students have returned to campus for the Fall–however, the pandemic still rages on. Enveloped in the shadow of COVID-19, this semester resembles no other semester in the University’s history, and the confusion surrounding safety solutions has left UofM staff, faculty, and students in the dark. While UofM administration has provided the Maize and Blueprint, including safety kits, a mask requirement, and the ResponsiBLUE symptom screening app, these safety measures have not satisfied the larger community.
The decision to bring students back to campus for the fall was contentious, and the University’s planning for this semester has not appeared to quell frustrations or anxieties. In June, the University passed a 1.9% tuition hike for the new academic year, and a $50 COVID fee. In August, the University announced its testing plan which focused mostly on testing those with symptoms, even though experts and other universities called for regular testing of all members of the campus community. Both President Mark Schlissel and Vice President of Student Life Rob Ernst faced backlash for comments they made defending the University’s plans to not test all people on campus. The University faced further criticism for not being more transparent about specific details or plans for a potential outbreak on campus.
To address concerns of safety on and around campus regarding COVID-19 related issues, Michigan announced a program called the Michigan Ambassadors, which would team up students with the Ann Arbor Police Department officers to patrol campus and the surrounding neighborhoods to enforce public health protocols and encourage the dissolution of large gatherings. Activists and people of color in the Michigan community immediately raised concerns about the use of police at a time when police brutality is on the minds of many. Amongst the concerns were fears that students of color would face a disproportionate amount of enforcement. The University later reversed their decision to include AAPD or armed DPSS officers on Michigan Ambassador patrols. Others have ridiculed the Michigan Ambassadors program for being all show with no bite.
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It didn’t take long for concerns regarding the University’s COVID-19 plans to grow into more than just concerns. On Monday, September 7th, one week into the fall semester, the Graduate Employee Organization announced that a vote had passed approving a four-day strike of U-M Graduate Students. In their announcement, the GEO said they would withhold their labor, both as instructors and students, to pressure the University into considering their demands. The GEO demands include more robust plans for testing, contact tracing and campus safety, the universal right to work remotely for graduate students, the repeal of the $500 international student fee and access to a disarmed and demilitarized workplace where lethal weapons are prohibited, to name just a few. As of September 9th, the GEO has rejected the University’s first offer to end the strike and opted to continue the strike as planned.
One day after the GEO strike was announced, over 100 Residential Staff Employees, including Residential Advisors and Diversity Peer Educators, voted to approve a strike beginning on Wednesday, September 9th. ResStaff participating in the strike will not perform duty shifts, staff the mailrooms, nor staff the community centers. In the meantime, these tasks will be taken over by other housing employees and DPSS. ResStaff is asking for increased COVID-19 protection such as regular access to testing for all of ResStaff, sufficient supplies of effective PPE and hazard pay. At the end of a very busy week, the Dining Hall Employees staged a walk-out on Friday, September 11th, in support of the strikes in GEO and ResStaff, and for their own protections. On this episode of the Daily Weekly we talk to members of the Michigan community about their experiences returning to campus. We explore what has gone right so far, and more often, what has gone wrong.
This episode was produced by Audio Engineer Gibson Gillett-Behrens, Executive Producer Sonya Vogel, and Content Producers Gerald Sill, Doug McClure, and Rachel Fagan. All the amazing music in this episode was made by Gibson Gillett-Behrens.