More than seven weeks have passed since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-21, urging all Michigan residents, except essential workers, to stay home to combat the spread of COVID-19. Life on campus had already been uprooted, with classes being moved online and University President Mark Schlissel urging students to return home if they were able. All non-essential businesses were closed, jobs were lost and some local businesses even closed their doors permanently due to financial turmoil. Decreasing numbers of new cases of COVID-19 in Michigan and recent protests against stay-at-home orders have sparked a conversation regarding whether we are ready to loosen restrictions and begin reopening our state’s economy. This leaves University of Michigan students wondering what we can expect for the fall 2020 semester.
Schlissel has spoken of having a “public health informed fall semester,” with ideas being thrown around to hold large classes online and smaller classes in person. This would include urging students to wear masks and reducing student density in campus buildings. His announcement followed news that the University’s losses from the pandemic could range from $400 million to $1 billion. Since other universities in Michigan have already announced plans to have online classes in their fall semesters, Schlissel’s optimism to open campus again seems to be somewhat financially motivated. However, since a vaccine for COVID-19 won’t be available for at least a year, it is crucial that we rebuild our campus infrastructure to allow for high-quality learning while still taking the proper precautions to keep our students and faculty safe. This is precisely what the University is trying to do.
If the University makes an effort to enforce social distancing in classes held in person, decreases student density in campus buildings and asks students to wear masks on campus, returning to campus could be feasible. However, an issue arises when considering social life on campus. The school may ban large gatherings, but they lack power when it comes to off-campus gatherings and nightlife.
In public health, when we create interventions meant to better the health of the public, we evaluate the amount of individual effort needed. Interventions that depend more on individual participation are less effective than those which rely on governmental authority. For example, executive orders that are more strict with their stay-at-home requirements and qualifying essential businesses would be more effective than simply asking people to stay home. In context, this means that keeping campus closed, holding classes online and urging students not to move back to Ann Arbor would be more effective than asking students to follow the recommended guidelines. Since this doesn’t seem to be financially practical for the University, I believe Schlissel wants to do what he can to open campus and bring students back. This means that we, the students, hold the responsibility of reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Whether we agree with prioritizing University finances during the pandemic, we all can admit that we would love to return to some kind of normal. As students who just lost half of a semester and already miss their campus and friends, doing our part to reduce the spread of the virus is going to be incredibly difficult. We are all desperate to return to school, see our friends, go to tailgates and enjoy what is left of our college experience. We will want to throw parties, go to Rick’s and enjoy a game day.
As a rising senior, I feel this too, but as a public health student, I’m afraid that opening campus and bringing tens of thousands of students back to Ann Arbor is a dangerous idea. Many of us will care more about having these college experiences than we do about hypothetically getting ourselves or someone else sick. We think that it will never actually affect us, and if it does, our youth and health will protect us from severe illness.
Unfortunately, there is still so much we don’t know about the virus. People in their 30s and 40s have been suffering severe strokes caused by COVID-19. Many of the impacts the virus can have on younger, healthy populations are still unknown. Because of this, we cannot just assume that our campus population is young, healthy and able to survive the virus without serious complications. We must consider our peers who are immunocompromised, our older faculty, staff and the surrounding Ann Arbor community.
At this time, our only proven defense against the virus is social distancing. Returning to campus life as it was before spring break simply cannot, and will not, happen. If we truly have a public health-informed fall semester, we won’t be crowding 100,000 people into the Big House this fall. University-sanctioned events that typically gather large crowds won’t be held. Greek life will be banned from throwing parties. As much as we all want to return to Ann Arbor and have all of these experiences that one can only have in college, we must accept that campus life won’t be the same as it was before. The burden is on us to continue to do our part to protect our community, but if we do things right, we can still make the most of next year.
Elayna Swift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org