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The Michigan Daily spoke with University President Mark Schlissel Monday afternoon to discuss plans for the Winter 2022 semester amid a surge of COVID-19, as well as recent changes to quarantine and isolation guidelines. Read part two of the interview here to see Schlissel’s thoughts on recent controversies surrounding felony disclosure, the Hail to the Victims Protest and more.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TMD: On Dec. 17, over 1,500 community members sent an open letter to you and Provost Susan Collins calling for the University to delay the start of the Winter 2022 semester due to the spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant. Alternatively, on Dec. 24, over 700 students penned an open letter calling for the University to resume in-person classes on Jan. 5 as scheduled. What impact did these open letters have on the University’s decision to resume classes on Jan. 5?
MS: We value all the kinds of input that we get, including big petitions that get circulated, so we read them, and we share them with the folks that are advising the experts around health and the Provost, and I read (them). We appreciate it, it’s valuable, but we don’t run the campus based on petitions.
TMD: Did the University ever consider pushing back the start of the semester? Or has the plan always been to open on Jan. 5?
MS: The decision to be in-person from the start, we kept revisiting up until a few days before the semester started. (There have been a lot of) mental health and behavioral challenges (as a result of) being remote … and sitting in front of a screen hour after hour all day. We were balancing that against our ability to keep people as healthy as possible during the spread of this much more infectious variant –– which really is a milder disease — not a trivial disease but a mild(er) disease. We’re 98% vaccinated. People are getting their boosters. We’ve got booster clinics all over the place in the coming days. So when we balanced everything out for Michigan, I thought we were in a good position to try to be in-person.
We (also) said, “well, look what would happen differently if we were remote,” and the only way it would have been very different is if we closed the dorms and people had to stay at home. Or if we told people, “when you come back here, don’t go out. Just stay where you are,” just like we did (in) March and April of 2020 where people were basically sheltering in place for weeks. People weren’t going to do that. So I think (with virtual learning), we were going to have all the risks of spreading COVID-19 because folks would be coming together again, but without the upside of in-person education and the diminishing social isolation.
TMD: Last Tuesday, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization overwhelmingly voted in support of an e-pivot – or a two-week return to virtual learning. Since then, nearly 1,800 U-M community members have signed on in support of an e-pivot. What do you have to say to faculty members who are conducting classes remotely, despite the University’s recommendation, and will faculty participating in the e-pivot face any form of consequences from the University?
MS: It’s our expectation that people teach in person. However, if a faculty member is feeling ill, they shouldn’t teach in person, and they can put their classroom remote. If so many of their students are absent that the quality of the class suffers, its faculty have the flexibility to go remote under those circumstances. What I encourage faculty to do is turn on their webcasting capacity if you’re in a lecture hall that has the ability to stream video, which most of our significant size lectures do.
We’re not yet at the stage where we’re gonna knock on every door and see who’s in the classroom and who isn’t. I think that this wave of omicron is not going to last incredibly long. It’ll last a few weeks and then probably get better. It’s our expectation that people are in person, but they can use their judgment when they’re sick. We’re going to try to continuously reevaluate and manage it that way.
TMD: In an email sent Friday, you asked instructors to be flexible in accommodating students who are quarantining. Does the University have any plans to mandate certain accommodations (such as virtual/recorded class) be available for students who test positive?
MS: Mandate? No. We’re going to ask faculty members and students to be very considerate of the fact that (some people) will take ill, and we have to cut one another some slack. We should not penalize students who stay home from class. We don’t want to set up an incentive where somebody’s sick, but they don’t want to get marked off, so they come to class and spread disease. That would be terrible. So we’ll try to be as firm about… not penalizing students for staying home if they’re sick.
TMD: In the first week of in-person classes, the University recorded the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Our question is, how is the University handling the current surge in positive COVID cases? What metrics/case numbers would force the University to alter its plans?
MS: We expected to see large numbers of cases. As omicron enters the community (in) different places in this country, they go through these big bursts of cases. I think one challenge we faced, which I think we could have done better in hindsight, is getting people moved into Quarantine & Isolation housing. We had so many cases the first few days (when) people were back on campus, that people had to wait too long to get help moving into Q&I housing. We’ve caught up with the backlog; the backlog is gone.
Instead of counting the number of cases, I think what we’re really paying attention to is who’s really sick, who has to go to the hospital and how severe the illness is. I think it’s quite likely that most of us are going to get omicron at some point. The hope is to slow it down, to protect people who are immunocompromised or folks who would do particularly poorly if they got COVID-19. But the idea of preventing people from getting infected with COVID-19, I think the ship has sailed.
TMD: Why was the decision made to limit quarantine housing eligibility to on-campus students?
MS: We were worried about our capacity. On-campus students are already paying for housing, so I feel a very direct and personal responsibility for them. People who live off campus … they’re much more like families …. We only had so many quarantine beds that were set aside, and we wanted to worry about the 11,000 students that are living in University Housing first … so we prioritized … students who already had housing contracts with us.
TMD: In an email addressed to members of the campus community last Tuesday, you and Provost Collins wrote you expected the “first few weeks of the semester to be challenging” and cases and hospitalizations were likely to increase. As an immunologist, how do you foresee COVID-19 impacting the rest of the semester?
MS: I expect COVID-19 to be significant in numbers for the next couple of weeks. I would hope, and many people predict, that as January becomes later in the month, the number of cases will go down but won’t go away. It’ll continue to be an everyday part of the campus for the rest of the semester.
I think we’re gonna have to continue being quite serious about keeping our masks on when we’re indoors. We’re going to try to get everybody boosted. What we’re learning how to do is to go ahead and get most of the value out of the University despite the fact that COVID-19 is still around. So we’re adapting to the fact that the disease is going to be around for a while, and we’re trying to give up as little as we can.
MS: When we looked back to when our deadline was to be fully vaccinated, it was Aug. 30. The current guideline is you’re not supposed to be boosted until six months after you’re fully vaccinated. So we figured a certain number of months after full vaccination would be the deadline, but we wanted people to get vaccinated as soon as they were eligible. The deadline was just a date after which we were going to start imposing sanctions, for example. That’s why we said Feb. 4. If we had said Jan. 1, let’s say, a significant fraction of students who were compliant on Aug. 30 couldn’t be compliant on Jan. 1 because six months haven’t gone by. But the good news is we’re up to 28,000 validated boosters and more and more (are) coming every day.
Daily News Editors George Weykamp and Shannon Stocking can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.