This Letter to the Editor is written in response to an earlier editorial published by the Michigan Daily Editorial Board titled “Total e-pivot is not the solution.”
Editor’s note: These authors are anonymous for fear of retribution from the University. In accordance with our ethics policy (which can be found in full in our bylaws), the Editor-in-Chief and Editorial Page Editors are aware of the authors’ identity.
We are a group of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff and nurses at the University of Michigan who write in response to the The Michigan Daily Editorial Board’s recent editorial, “Total e-pivot is not the solution.” The Editorial Board’s position highlights the urgent need to reframe discussions around the pandemic from a supposed opposition of interests between instructors and students to our shared interests as a community.
Despite its misleading headline, the Editorial Board’s editorial highlights our shared interests. Both the editorial and the e-pivot letter (which supported instructors’ right to temporarily shift instruction online while in-person conditions are unsafe) call for flexibility and accommodations for the immunocompromised, sick, exposed and anxious. We also support the Editorial Board’s call for “mandatory weekly testing for all students taking classes in or living on campus.” The Editorial Board may have misunderstood the e-pivot as simply a call for online instruction, rather than a call for the right to shift instruction online until it is safe to teach in person. That would be understandable, as much of the national debate has been framed as a fight between in-person versus online, which obscures the shared goal of creating a safe and high-quality learning environment.
We submit that the Editorial Board has made the mistake of thinking that undergraduate students’ interests are monolithic and separate from the interests of other groups. Left out of their framing are campus workers, faculty, lecturers, staff, GSIs and nurses, as well as the many undergraduates who feel unsafe attending classes in person. It also leaves out their families, which may include unvaccinated children, elderly people and people with medical conditions. All of these groups will be at greater risk of infection if there is a general increase of transmission in our community, as will vulnerable groups in Washtenaw, Wayne and Genesee counties. These people directly and indirectly provide the things undergraduates need to thrive (and, in some cases, are undergraduates themselves!). We are all dependent on each other, which means that supporting each other is also supporting ourselves.
Take student learning, for example, for which both we and the Editorial Board share a deep concern. Neither students nor instructors can give their best if they are sick with COVID-19, caring for others who are sick or vulnerable, lacking adequate childcare, stressed by their vulnerability to the virus and/or struggling with long COVID-19. What happens in the classroom depends on the work of countless staff members, who also face exposure in office environments. Students living on campus depend on the work of dining hall staff, dorm staff and residential advisors, all of whom are in constant contact with students, and none of whom have the choice to work remotely. Many of us cannot get to campus if bus drivers do not have what they need to be safe and healthy. Similarly, none of us can be safe while our healthcare system is “facing its worst crisis point of the COVID-19 pandemic so far,” with nurses and other healthcare workers pushed past their breaking points. Each of us can only fully realize our goals if every member of our community is safe and healthy.
Furthermore, we cannot lose sight of the fact that each member of our community has a right to health, safety and life, regardless of their ability to work and perform other prescribed functions. The University has made this too easy to overlook. The administration and its medical advisors have repeatedly stated that only, or mostly, individuals with risk factors end up in the hospitals, implicitly suggesting that those individuals are dispensable. A recent study co-authored by a U-M professor found that the strong COVID-19 mitigation policies in place from March through August of 2020 saved 866,350 to 1,711,150 lives. However, the study also concludes that “the net impact on quality-adjusted life expectancy is less clear owing to the older age and poorer health of individuals at highest risk of mortality from the disease” (p.8). This is the logic of eugenics and ableism, and we must reject it.
There is legitimate disagreement about whether teaching in person is safe, and here we agree with the Editorial Board that evidence can help guide our thinking. This highlights the fact that the University has never released the data that supposedly shows that classrooms “have remained safe throughout the pandemic.” If the University has data that legitimately addresses the community’s concerns, why not share it? One likely answer is that the data does not exist. U-M does not consider attending class with someone with COVID-19 as a “close contact” when everyone is masked and most are vaccinated. This means that contact tracers do not investigate potential classroom exposures. Since September 2021, the University has given up on notifying people of potential exposures in “building spaces,” which includes classrooms, dining halls and residence halls. Obviously, the absence of data of transmission in these spaces is not the same as the actual absence of classroom transmission.
The Editorial Board helpfully cites actual evidence of low classroom transmission rates, but that evidence has limited relevance to our current situation. For example, the article cites a Cornell simulation study that predates the discovery of the omicron variant and therefore uses assumptions that do not reflect today’s reality. Critically, the study assumes a rate of 32 COVID-19 cases per week, which was the prevalence at Cornell in September 2021. The University’s COVID-19 dashboard currently records 1,795 cases in the first week of the Winter 2022 semester. Mitigation measures that can control spread when COVID-19 prevalence is low may be insufficient when prevalence is orders of magnitude higher. We also know that vaccines and masks are less effective at stopping omicron than prior variants. This suggests that the measures the Editorial Board called for should be strengthened to provide and require N95 masks on campus, rather than simply “a face covering that covers the mouth and nose.” The University has also asserted in a private communication that it follows the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ recommendations for classroom air exchange rates, but evidence suggests that not all classrooms have rates that meet ASHRAE standards. More generally, we must be careful, critical and thorough as we analyze and integrate the evidence available to us.
COVID-19 highlights the ways that our individual experiences depend on the well-being of so many others in our community. Unless faculty, lecturers, staff, graduate students, undergraduates, resident advisors, bus drivers, custodians, nurses and others — including those who are immunocompromised, those with immunocompromised family or roommates and those with children under five — are able to do their work in safety and health, the campus experience will be inferior for each one of us. Conversely, the e-pivot campaign was the result of unprecedented collaboration between the different groups of people who make up our campus community, including faculty, lecturers, nurses, university staff and graduate and undergraduate students. Only through a truly inclusive and democratic movement can we understand and achieve what’s required for better conditions and resources for all of us.
Coalition for a Safe Campus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.