While this semester was characterized by the decision to move to almost entirely remote learning, this upcoming fall is going to be a step toward normalcy at the University of Michigan, as announced Friday during the weekly campus COVID-19 briefing.
The reveal was keen on highlighting that most classes would be returning to classrooms, while students would return to residence halls — both of which are exciting changes, no doubt. But hidden in a lower bullet point on University President Mark Schlissel’s Friday announcement is something that is even more promising: There will be a relaxation of public health measures and an increase of in-person activities, should vaccination levels exceed the University’s current expectations.
Throughout the pandemic, the phrase “return to normal” has been seemingly the objective. Within the context of life at the University, having in-person activities and relaxing public health guidelines seems pretty close to normal. If we would like to arrive at a sense of normalcy (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to be optimistic that this is a possibility), Schlissel and the administration need to aggressively urge the student body to get a vaccine when eligible.
As Schlissel wrote in the announcement email, President Joe Biden is going to order states to allow all adults to receive vaccines on May 1. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is going to allow adults to get the vaccine even sooner, on April 5.
The time for the administration to act on vaccines is now. Indeed, a large portion of the student body returned home this semester as the residence halls are closed, but a significant proportion remains in Ann Arbor, mostly in off-campus housing. The University needs to acknowledge that and aggressively push them to get vaccinated starting April 5 or sooner, if possible.
He did not specify the exact percentage of students they expect to be eligible for vaccinations, but Schlissel hinted in his briefing that he was wary of an adequate proportion of students being vaccinated in the fall. That does not have to be the case.
Schlissel needs to take the initiative for making a bold public health decision. He was criticized in the fall semester for failing to provide accessible testing — now, he should push all students currently living in Ann Arbor to get vaccinated. He can further encourage Michigan Medicine to increase vaccine rollout as soon as they are equipped to do so. Also, he should open the opportunity for student volunteers to increase staff at the Big House so more people can get vaccinated, and we can get a strong percentage of the student population vaccinated between April 5 and our last day of school.
If a sufficient supply of Johnson & Johnson one-shot COVID-19 vaccines can be made available by the start of April, there is a strong likelihood that most if not all University of Michigan students currently in Ann Arbor can get fully vaccinated. As the University’s student body constitutes the main demographic of positive cases in Washtenaw County, Schlissel needs to articulate the pressing need for our student body to get vaccinated.
Additionally, over the summer, there needs to be an increased push encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations for students living in Ann Arbor and an even more vigorous push virtually. The University should provide resources to match students with their local vaccination sites and urge students to go and receive one. If an appropriate one can be determined, issue incentives for students to get vaccinated — whatever it takes.
Last spring, Schlissel also offered a relatively optimistic reopening plan for Fall 2020. The reality of the semester ended up being starkly different, with frequent disruptions and an overall chaotic implementation of public health safety measures. Of course now with the introduction of the vaccine and two semesters of pandemic education behind us, there has been a great deal of learning that has gone into planning for the upcoming semester.
Still, Friday’s announcement sounded disturbingly similar to the message we received almost a year ago. That cannot be the case. Pushing all Ann Arbor-based students to get vaccinated before they leave later in April is how the currently encouraging message can be turned into the ideal transition out of the pandemic for the University.
Even with a significant proportion of the community vaccinated, a complete return to normalcy is likely still a bit down the road. It is likely mask-wearing will be in place for at least a little while longer, while, as a precautionary measure, regular testing should also stay intact. As much as we can have faith that students will act responsibly, it is naive to think that they will do so perfectly.
That said, if we are able to make the proper push, normalcy is going to become more realistic. As we increase the proportion of our community that has been vaccinated, we will not need to uphold as many restrictions.
If nearly all of the University staff, including faculty and Graduate Student Instructors, and a majority of the student body are vaccinated, normal could be even closer to the pre-COVID-19 days than one could currently imagine. Should Schlissel agree, expect a push for vaccinations to hit your email inbox soon.
John Tumpowsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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