In calendar year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatigue is reaching an all-time high. As of Jan. 15, 2022, COVID-19 has claimed more than 850,000 American lives. Every reasonable measure should be enacted to defeat this virus. That said, students cannot be expected to put aside our best interests in fear of COVID-19 spreading in low risk classroom environments. The calls to “e-pivot” in-person classes — though in good faith — are not in the best interest of the student body.
The relative risk to University of Michigan students of serious complications as a result of COVID-19 is low and even lower when compared to the devastating toll that remote learning has inflicted on students’ mental health. In-person classes are not the primary method of spreading COVID-19 throughout the U-M community, but they do continue to create meaningful connections between students and add irreplaceable academic experience. Some measures taken by the University, like the ResponsiBlue mobile app, function more like “hygiene theatre” than an actual method of verifying a person’s health. With the implementation of more regular testing, though, ResponsiBlue could become a much stronger weapon against COVID-19. The Winter 2022 semester should then continue in person as planned, with the added public health measure of mandatory weekly testing for all students taking classes in or living on campus.
College students experienced a mental health crisis during the semesters of online learning last year. A study surveying college students during the 2020 school year found that 71% of respondents felt a higher level of stress and anxiety in response to COVID-19. Stressors included the physical health of the students and their loved ones, the loss of social interaction and lower academic performance. Most worrying, the study found that 8% of the student sample reported thoughts of suicide, compared with 3-7% in pre-pandemic studies. This disturbing trend is a grim reminder that protecting the mental health of students is just as important as protecting their physical health.
Research has affirmed time and time again that overall, in-person learning is a superior form of education for undergraduate students. In addition to the aforementioned harmful effects on mental health, studies found that “students in online courses generally get lower grades, are less likely to perform well in follow-on coursework, and are less likely to graduate than similar students taking in-person classes.” While remote learning may have been a necessary precaution in the pre-vaccine era, it is not worth reviving the harms of remote learning at a school where 98% of students have received at least the first two doses of the vaccine and are required to receive a booster shot by next month.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the valid fears that students have about in-person learning in a time of massive spread of the disease. There are many reasons for these students to be concerned, be they immunocompromised or those worried about some of the long-term effects of COVID-19 that we are only beginning to understand.
Some professors, this semester, have provided the option of asynchronous participation by utilizing lecture capture software or uploading recorded lectures from a previous semester. Encouraging more professors to follow suit would allow the majority of students to enjoy in-person instruction without forcing concerned students to make the choice between education and their health. In cases where one course is in a recordable space while another is not, course coordinators should be allowed to upload recorded lectures onto a Canvas page accessible to all students taking that course.
Discussion sections pose a unique problem for students and instructors due to the impracticality of having only a few students attending virtually. To avoid any complications associated with University-wide accommodations, Services for Students with Disabilities should facilitate agreements between immunocompromised students and their instructors that grant those students greater flexibility and/or necessary accommodations for safe participation. Similar flexibility should be given to students who are unable to attend class because of a positive COVID-19 test, close contact notification or anxiety over the pandemic.
The current testing framework only mandates that unvaccinated and exempt students procure a weekly negative test. To maintain in-person instruction, the University needs to update its testing protocol and make regular testing mandatory for the vaccinated student body as well. The Feb. 4 booster shot mandate will ensure that community members are better protected against COVID-19 and assuage fears about developing serious complications from contracting the virus.
However, as we know, asymptomatic spread can account for a large portion of community transmission. As such, mandatory, regular testing would be an effective method of preventing unknowingly infected individuals from infecting others. Increased opportunities for asymptomatic testing, through the pre-established Community Sampling and Tracking Program, will be especially crucial to the campus community as they gradually receive booster shots before the Feb. 4 deadline.
Previous testing requirements imposed during the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 semesters were the University’s first attempts at campus-wide testing. Although financially costly, increasing testing capacity gave administrators a clear picture of the level of transmission on campus and kept community members informed about their health. This semester, MHousing provided two at-home tests to all residents in student housing, but the effectiveness of that strategy depended on students honestly reporting positive test results. There has also been a rising demand for at-home tests around the world, partially fueled by the U.S. government, particularly in response to the Omicron variant.
A framework working towards mandatory weekly testing for everyone who comes on campus is essential for maintaining in-person instruction and limiting unnecessary COVID-19 transmission. Furthermore, while it would require increased staff and resources, University-administered testing would likely be a more resolute solution given the unreliability of rapid tests and a question mark over the honor code that comes with self-reporting.Although intentions behind an e-pivot are sound, its consequences could be dire for a student body that is showing visible signs of fatigue when it comes to online learning. Moreover, if the correct steps are taken and with the cooperation of the University and the community as a whole, the coming semester can still be the most “normal” one of recent times. In its third calendar year, it is more clear than ever before that defeating COVID-19 will require everyone, from students to professors to U-M officials, to work toward a common goal.