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As University of Michigan students embark on their second week of classes for the winter 2022 semester, members of the community have mixed feelings about the decision to return to mostly face-to-face instruction.
On Jan. 3, University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins confirmed a fully in-person return to classes for the winter semester, citing high vaccination rates and low transmission rates in classrooms.
The University’s decision is a notable outlier among other academic institutions in the area. Ann Arbor Public Schools, Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University have all announced plans for a modified return to classes following winter break, each citing concerns regarding COVID-19 and the recent surge in cases throughout the state.
From Jan. 8 to Jan. 10, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported an average of 14,841 confirmed cases per day in the state. Many Michigan hospitals are overwhelmed, with Michigan Medicine at 87% capacity and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital at 100% as of Jan. 10.
Dr. Preeti Malani, U-M Chief Health Officer, told the Wall Street Journal in December that the University was considering multiple benchmarks for evaluating the return to full in-person classes, including 300k-400k daily national cases and a double-digit test positivity rate.
1.35 million U.S. COVID-19 cases were reported on Jan. 10, setting a global record for daily cases in a single country. The seven-day average is over 700,000 for new cases per day. Washtenaw County reported a 20.2% weekly test positivity rate as of Jan. 10.
Malani clarified a statement she made in The Wall Street Journal article, in which she said the University would consider the Michigan football team’s performance in the Orange Bowl when deciding whether or not it would be safe to bring students back to campus. If the Wolverines had gone on to the National Championships, the article suggests crowds would have descended upon Ann Arbor regardless of whether classes were in-person or not.
“I could have said it better,” Malani said. “The specific quotes that got taken were part of a very large conversation around all the public health metrics … It was really more of a discussion about the kinds of things that would make us think about the (University’s) response and (if we can) do this safely because safety overall is the biggest consideration.”
Members of the U-M community took to social media, criticizing Malani’s comments.
Malani said in an interview with The Daily that she does not have the final say on whether classes are held in person.
“I’m part of a large group that gives advice and input,” Malani said. “But I am in no way the final decision maker … The decisions come from the president and the executive officers and the regents.”
History professor John Carson penned an open letter which received over 1,500 signatures from the U-M and Ann Arbor community calling for a modified start to the winter term with two weeks of delayed or virtual instruction. In an interview with The Daily, Schlissel said he read the open letter, but the University does not “run the campus based on petitions.”
Carson expressed disapproval with how the University was responding to the highly contagious omicron variant, especially when compared to the measures — such as required vaccinations — put in place during the fall semester in response to the delta variant.
“I’ve just been highly disappointed,” Carson said. “I think (the University has) taken the wrong lessons from last semester … I think (the lesson) is that you have to adapt as the virus itself adapts. And I don’t think they did that this semester.”
Frustration towards the University’s response to the Omicron variant has also been present among some students. In a Dec. 30 press release, the Central Student Government advocated for two weeks of online instruction through Jan. 18, referencing Carson’s open letter.
“I do believe classes should have been shifted online for the first couple of weeks to kind of mitigate any type of spread,” CSG President Nithya Arun told The Daily. “It’s especially important to be cognizant of the data and consider the vulnerable populations who could be disproportionately affected if they get COVID.”
Arun noted the importance of safe behaviors outside of the classroom, too.
“I think that students really need to be careful of the decisions they make for the next couple of weeks,” Arun said. “Be careful right now. Now may not be the time to go out and go to a party with a ton of different people. I want fellow students to value their health.”
Art & Design junior Ren Strawn wrote in an email to The Daily she was pleased with a few of the University’s actions in response to the pandemic but still believes a pivot to virtual instruction would be the best course of action.
“The one thing I’m excited to see from the University is a more concerted effort to get effective masks to the student population,” Strawn wrote. “I commend them for that. It’s important to give credit when it’s due, I just hope that they continue to provide that support throughout the semester. I still think a two week online pivot would be beneficial to the students, faculty, and their families.”
At the beginning of the semester, the face covering mandate within residence hall common areas was reinstated for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. This has led residence advisors and student assistants, such as LSA sophomore Julia Watt, to become enforcers of the rule.
“It’s also been somewhat of our responsibility as a staff person to make sure that people are wearing masks in the dorms, which is admittedly quite exhausting,” Watt said. “Because I think perhaps it’s not clear to some students that you really have to wear your mask everywhere.”
Watt expressed support for extending the residence hall mask mandate past the current end date of Jan. 17 until there is “definitive evidence the surge is reducing.”
Other members of the U-M community are also dissatisfied with the University’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Art & Design Professor Rebekah Modrak, who co-authored Carson’s open letter, signaled support for instructors’ ability to choose their classes’ learning modes in an email to The Daily.
“Instructors should have the autonomy to make decisions about modality based on the pedagogical needs of their class … and the health and safety of the community,” Modrak wrote.
After the University was set to begin in-person classes again, over 1,900 community members signed a second letter written by U-M faculty which encourages instructors to collectively pivot to online instruction — referred to as an “e-pivot” — for the first two weeks of the winter term, or to lend their full support to those who participate in the e-pivot. Among the signatories are undergraduate and graduate students, lecturers and tenure-track professors.
Others on campus have voiced support for the administration’s decision for an in-person winter term. A letter — with over 900 signatures — encouraged a return to in-person classes starting the first day of the semester.
“Working virtually is damaging to the learning environment and is not as effective as in-person learning,” the letter reads. “The student body is willing to endure mask mandates and booster requirements if the university is willing to continue delivering high-quality, in-person education.”
LSA sophomore Drew Joliet co-authored the letter and credited his opinion to not having in-person learning during his freshman year.
“I think (the University) did a good job by leading and making a statement by staying in person,” Joliet said.
Engineering freshman Davis Rule signed the open letter after seeing it on social media. Rule said he was in support of the return to an in-person semester as long as the University was careful about testing.
“It seems like things are on track so far,” Rule said. “As long as we’re careful about how we’re testing and making sure that we’re aware of how many cases we have and how we’re going to handle that.”
Ryan Glauser, organizing chair for the Graduate Employees’ Organization, signed both the e-pivot letter and the open letter and also emphasized the need for expanded testing.
“We need an asymptomatic testing mandate, especially with omicron,” Glauser said. “We need everyone on campus … to be tested on a regular basis. If you aren’t tested on a regular basis, then you can’t come to class.”
Daily Staff Reporters Carly Brechner, Irena Li and Matthew Shanbom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.