‘U’ community requests greater transparency and flexibility in reopening plans

Thursday, August 6, 2020 - 6:32pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

Just weeks before fall classes start, over 1,400 University of Michigan community members signed an open letter urging the University to provide transparency in the reopening plans for this fall and an analysis outlining exactly how these plans will keep the community safe. 

The letter –– written to the University July 27 –– drew professors, staff members and graduate and undergraduate students to call for the logistics and proof of what a “public-health informed” fall semester will look like. Though class instruction modes have been adjusted and planned for classes still meeting in-person, the letter explains, little information has been released regarding containment of the virus.

“We have heard very little about other key containment strategies such as widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the sick,” the letter reads. “The implementation of these containment policies across the whole campus would be quite complex and, with just one month remaining, we have not seen a demonstration that plans are in place.”

Physics professor Dante Amidei, one of the contributors to the letter, said it is a call for transparency. 

“We — the folks who are going to be bearing this risk — believe that as a public institution, the University has a responsibility to put all the cards out here on the table, to show us the plan and show us an analysis of that plan that says that this is going to be safe,” Amidei said. “We understand that nothing can ever be risk free, but there are many examples of analyses like this that can take these factors into account and estimate the risk or not of a plan.”

On Aug. 3, the University released several updates for the fall semester, including a requirement that all students self-quarantine for 14 days prior to returning to campus. The announcement also alluded to providing all students living in University Housing with COVID-19 testing. There are no details regarding whether faculty, staff and students living off-campus are included.

Though the University has released details to testing and isolation methods, Amidei said the University is still responsible for providing reasoning for how these decisions protect its community. According to Amidei, the writers have since drafted a second letter calling for greater transparency on the risk analysis.

“We’ve seen the plan, but there was nothing in that message about point two, which is asking to see a critical analysis of the plan that shows why it is safe,” Amidei said. “We believe this is a public health issue that can be addressed by science. We want to see the science. We would like to see the metrics that are being used and the expected impact of this plan on the health of the surrounding communities.”

Rackham student Jeff Lockhart is a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s COVID Caucus. Lockhart said detailed guidance and procedures surrounding employee infections for those currently on campus, including researchers and maintenance staff, has been provided. 

“There has been, all summer, detailed guidance and updates on what to do if you have symptoms and who to go to in terms of your supervisor,” Lockhart said. “If someone in your workplace is out getting tested, you know what to do with their workspace and who you can and can’t share the information about test results with because there’s privacy concerns there.” 

However, Lockhart said there is a lack of guidance for when the fall semester begins and more people arrive on campus.

“The messaging that has gone out to, for and about undergraduates hasn’t talked about risk at all,” Lockhart said. “What it’s said is that we are doing ‘X’ because it’s public-health informed or we’re doing ‘Y’ in order to keep you safe … the University has teams whose job it is to say if we do ‘X’ how many people does that protect and if we follow this plan how many people do we expect are going to get sick, be in dorms or go to the hospital?”

Lockhart also discussed a report the University Ethics and Privacy Committee published on June 8 which analyzes the University’s response to COVID-19 and considerations that must be made for all parties involved as the pandemic wears on. The report included encouragement of a joint-decision making process between administration, students and faculty for the fall semester. 

“It says that students and faculty and staff should be involved in the decision-making capacity from the beginning about fall reopening but the graduate student union and other graduate student groups have all been shut out, even the lecturers employees union has been mostly shut out,” Lockhart said. “They’ll tell you that we’re having conversations but we deliver lists of proposals and they dismiss all the proposals without talking about anything specifically.”  

The report also mentioned the University’s ethical liability surrounding COVID-19 risk on campus, saying “The University has a substantial obligation to (tell faculty and staff about) … actual and projected levels of success as best we can gauge them (and the risk associated with these processes).” 

Lockhart agrees with the content of the report and believes the University cannot ignore the potential for infection risk across campus. 

“Even if they make us sign waivers — which they’re trying to do — and even if the government passes a law that says they’re not liable if we die, the report says they’re still ethically liable for people getting sick and dying,” Lockhart said. “The University has it in writing from their own ethics committee that their liability is not gone … the University can’t actually guarantee safety and use the word ‘safe’ to describe the buildings we have classes and we have offices (in) and where some of us sleep at night.” 

Lockhart believes the COVID-19 pandemic and the process of reopening the University is a classic example of a sociological problem with the University being in the center. 

“We’re not all just isolated individuals who can really make our own individual personal choices … if I don’t make good choices they affect everyone in my apartment building or every one of my students,” Lockhart said. “I can make all the good choices for myself, but if other people don’t, or if a policy encourages people not (to) do so, then I’m at higher risk despite my individual choices. So it’s really the social problem that requires a structural solution and the people who make structural solutions are the University, they put out the policy, they determine what’s in the realm of possibility.”  

The University’s pandemic reopening policy permits units to impose sanctions for those who do not want to teach in-person, unless they meet specific criteria. As a response, University faculty are circulating a petition stating the University should allow any instructor to opt-out of in-person instruction regardless of their reason. 

School of Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak is one of the creators of the petition, and as a faculty member, she said in an email to The Daily, she does not feel safe participating in in-person instruction and activities on campus due to the unpredictability of the virus and the lack of knowledge of what safety measures students are taking. 

“As a faculty member, I still wouldn’t feel safe due to the unpredictable nature of the virus and to surveys, such as those from University of Connecticut professor Sherry Pagoto indicating that the majority of the traditional student body will be unwilling to social distance by wearing masks in social settings, unwilling to identify themselves as having symptoms and unwilling to provide information for contact tracing,” Modrak wrote. “We need to plan (with) these behaviors in mind and faculty must have the right to protect ourselves and our community by opting out of in-person instruction.” 

According to Modrak, all 34 School of Art & Design first-year foundation courses are scheduled to be either hybrid or in-person, and first-year students not willing to be on campus to take these courses have been asked to defer. Modrak shares in her colleagues’ concerns that students are being put in a position where they have to choose between their education and safety, but their focus now is ensuring the rights of instructors to protect themselves. Over the course of the summer, several tenured and tenure-track faculty voiced concerns about teaching in-person, so they were shifted to courses slated for online instruction and foundation courses will now be majorly taught by lecturers. 

“28 of the 34 first-year courses are now being taught by lecturers and the Stamps LEO (Lecturers’ Employee Organization) steward estimates that 70 percent of them would prefer to teach online but feel too vulnerable to indicate this desire for fear of not being rescheduled and thus loss of income,” Modrak wrote. “We must be conscious of the power dynamics at play that make this situation more precarious for non-tenured instructors, and we must protect them without expecting them to voice concerns themselves.” 

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached out krizheng@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu.