Dance building closes for two weeks to prevent COVID-19 exposure; 10 percent of department ‘exposed or quarantined’

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 12:56pm

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Courtesy of Sammy Sussman

The Dance Department of the School of Music, Theater & Dance will be closing its building on Central Campus following an increase in possible exposures, according to an email SMTD’s dance chair Christian Matijas-Mecca sent Monday.

Matijas-Mecca told students the dance building would close and instruction would shift online for at least two weeks. 

“Over this weekend we have seen an alarming rise in the number of exposure cases within the department and we expect this number to rise further in the upcoming days,” Matijas-Mecca’s email read. “Currently we have over 10% of the dept reporting as having been exposed or quarantined and I do not want to see these numbers rise any further.”

He explained that the decision was his and not the administration’s. Matijas-Mecca did not immediately respond to request for comment.

“While this closure of the building has not been required by the SMTD or central administration, I do not want to see the department or the building become a superspreader site, and have decided preemptively to close the building and avoid further exposures to students, faculty, and staff,” Matijas-Mecca wrote.

The pivot to online instruction comes amid complaints across SMTD about protocols for informing students who may have come in contact with people who test positive for COVID-19.

Last Tuesday, the University of Michigan’s Environment, Health & Safety Department reported a positive COVID-19 case in the Moore Building on North Campus, according to a notice from Danielle Sheen, the department’s executive director. Music, Theatre & Dance faculty and staff were notified of the case that Tuesday — but some students weren’t told until the following Saturday.

Both Music, Theatre & Dance students and faculty have since expressed confusion as well as frustration with EHS protocol in light of this delay, with some departmental leaders responding by taking matters of safety and communication into their own hands by informing their community. 

Faculty and staff were notified in a letter that a student who tested positive for COVID-19 had visited practice rooms in the building on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the previous week. The letter resembled those sent to students living in West Quad Residence Hall and Bursley Residence Hall, where positive cases have been reported recently. As for Music, Theatre & Dance students, only classmates from specific courses and individuals identified as “close contacts” of the student who tested positive were notified.

According to University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen, the University’s communication protocol regarding which personnel members receive an email notification regarding possible exposure to COVID-19 depends on location.

“For example, if there is a positive case in a classroom, the university will send a public health notification to students/relevant faculty,” Broekhuizen wrote in an email to The Daily.

Broekhuizen also pointed to a section on the FAQ page on the University’s Maize and Blueprint site titled “COVID-19 in the classroom,” which indicates that for the majority of classes this semester, “students and faculty would not be considered close contacts” of students who test positive due to social distancing protocols in the classroom.

Rackham student Melissa Coppola, who is pursuing a doctorate in piano performance through SMTD, was particularly confused as to why the original EHS notification only went to faculty and staff when students predominantly use the Moore Building’s spaces. The Moore Building is not used for dance coursework.

“I feel that we have greater risk of exposure than other departments … but the protocol is the same,” Coppola said. “However, there are a lot of inconsistencies particularly in this case: like, why were all the faculty and staff told and not the students when the fact of the matter is that the students use the practice rooms?”

As a comparatively small program comprised of a little more than 1,000 students, rumors spread quickly among Music, Theatre & Dance students who had yet to receive formal notification. 

“Even department heads (were) saying, ‘Well, I heard it was a wind student,’ or ‘I heard it was a dance student,’ and those were all rumors,” Coppola said. “Why are we sharing rumors?”

Christopher Harding, Music, Theatre & Dance professor and piano chair, is one professor who was on the receiving end of some of the emails from students looking for answers. He confirmed in an email to The Daily that “it took some time … for all of us to become aware that the students had not received the same communication as the faculty and staff.”

On Saturday morning Music, Theatre & Dance students received an email from their dean, David Gier, formally notifying them of the case. Gier wrote that the failure of EHS protocol to inform students of the Moore Building case was “not in-line with our commitment to transparent and open communication.” 

He also referred students to a new public health community notices page on the Maize and Blueprint site. The site includes notices for various dorms and academic buildings, including the Moore Building, where positive cases have been reported. 

Students said that while this update to the channels of communication regarding the presence of COVID-19 on campus is a step in the right direction, they expect more given that the program relies heavily on in-person instruction, interaction and practices in enclosed spaces, according to Music, Theatre & Dance junior Catherine Moore.

“I think the second there was the COVID case, everyone should have gotten a blast email because SMTD is a cluster in itself,” Moore said. “ … most kids (in SMTD) live in like two apartment buildings on North Campus. We’re all friends with each other, we play in chamber ensembles together, we have all of our classes together, a lot of which are in-person.”

Moore also questioned EHS’ reference to “practice room use protocol” in their notice concerning the Moore Building. The notice stated that “each user disinfects the room after each use.” In her experience, however, Moore said that practice room protocols are not being enforced.

“It’s not like I’ve seen people roaming the halls, checking to see if people are cleaning off (the rooms),” Moore said.

Gala Flagello, a Rackham student pursuing a doctorate in composition through SMTD, said that moving forward, the delayed communication regarding the Moore Building is a “huge blow” to her trust in the administration.

“If I can’t expect an email telling me when my health could be at risk — when it clearly could be — that does not give me hope about the sort of community that we have at SMTD,” Flagello said.

Flagello contrasted communication surrounding the case in the Moore Building with the Dance Department’s response.

In a different email Monday to faculty and staff, Matijas-Mecca wrote that dissatisfaction with EHS protocols contributed to his decision.

“The protocols provided to us re: notification from EHS have not panned out as intended,” Matijas-Mecca wrote. “I only can gather they have not worked out their own chains of communication amidst the mountains of results they are tracking, but their communication with the department has been, for lack of a better word, an expletive. All information we have received has come from student self-reporting, not EHS.”

The dance building will tentatively reopen Monday, Sept. 28.

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.


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