We’re back in person and so are hundreds of cases of COVID-19 on campus. Despite a University-wide vaccine mandate and indoor masking requirements, cases are surging within the University of Michigan and the broader Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County communities. While the University administration remains hopeful about the semester, students’ cautious optimism about returning to campus has quickly shifted to uncertainty as we begin to hit many of the case metrics set by the University in only the first few weeks of class.
It is critical to reflect on the issues that have already arisen in the first three weeks of the semester and to accordingly adjust the approach to COVID-19. This will require a joint effort of cooperation between the administration and the broader community to mitigate the dangers of the pandemic. As students, staff and faculty continue to adjust back to in-person classes and COVID-19 restrictions, we call upon the University administration to better protect its members and present a clearer blueprint for navigating life on campus in this new era of the pandemic. We also call upon our fellow community members, specifically students, to act responsibly as cases increase.
On Sept. 9, the University posted on the COVID-19 dashboard that we had met several metrics that should trigger a review of campus procedures, including the doubling of the case count within the previous seven days, over 250 tests per day at University Health Services and a strain on contact tracing resources; Washtenaw County transmission of the virus also remained at a high level, a metric that was met originally on Aug. 20. However, in response to reaching these metrics — that the University initially set to indicate a sufficient problem that necessitated a fresh look at campus procedures — little has happened. The University also ceased sending email notifications informing students about positive COVID-19 cases in their classes after people criticized them for being too vague (while upholding anonymity for the individual, the University included neither the date nor the class of potential exposure).
Not only has the University failed to update its COVID-19 policies in a helpful way, but it has taken away a critical method of transparency and testing infrastructure seems to be making it difficult for even symptomatic students to get a test. For instance, social media has been flooded with reports of community members’ inability to schedule a test through UHS, forcing them to turn to resources off-campus. The situation is similar for asymptomatic students wanting to sign up through the Community Sampling and Tracking Program: Appointments can be unavailable for days as the University visibly slimmed down resources, limiting testing centers to only four locations with decreasing seat numbers.
The situation of a spike in cases and widespread confusion is reminiscent of Fall 2020. But, unlike last fall, there is no standardized policy that requires faculty and staff to provide academic support — it is merely recommended. This, alongside no school-wide policy protecting students if they have to isolate or quarantine, makes students vulnerable if they believe they may have COVID-19, or if they test positive. Without policies that ensure students will have access to academic materials and that they will not be penalized for staying home when they believe themselves to be ill, students may be forced to attend class even when they are unsure of their own safety, or of their potential impact on their classmates and instructors.
The University has implemented certain measures like vaccine mandates and mandatory indoor masking to protect the broader community from COVID-19, but there are a handful of issues that are beginning to erupt in parallel with the rise of cases. In order to address the inconsistencies students have experienced, professors should be given a directive on how to handle COVID-19-related illnesses and absences — a firm stance on supporting students that have to miss class is critical to contain the spread.
Additionally, faculty and staff should be required (with institutional support) to provide supplementary material to students who cannot come to class — remote access to coursework and lectures is critical to ensure students’ health, safety and responsibility. Lastly, many places with lower rates of transmission have had success with rigorous contact tracing in the classroom.
While the University could definitely make improvements with protocols regarding COVID-19, taking personal responsibility for your health and the safety of the larger community remains critical. Wearing masks when in a campus building and getting vaccinated are minimal actions to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For students, staff and faculty, going beyond the expectations set by the University and taking proactive measures such as wearing masks in any non-University indoor and outdoor environment, as well as getting tested on a consistent basis should be the norm, rather than the exception.
As we continue to traverse the “new normal” of campus during and throughout COVID-19, many are confused about the inconsistent standards put in place to keep us all safe. The University must adapt its approach to regulations and protocols both in and out of the classroom to address any uncertainty. This can begin with a standardized attendance policy, by requiring that every lecture be recorded and by instituting a mandatory close-contact test and temporary quarantine period.
Ultimately, administrative responsiveness, communication and transparency alongside community responsibility and action will facilitate a safer semester.