Faculty Senate town hall discusses COVID-19 testing, student culture for upcoming year

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 8:57pm

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Courtesy of Kristina Zheng

With under two months left before the start of classes for the 2020-21 academic year, the University of Michigan Faculty Senate hosted a town hall meeting featuring University President Mark Schlissel and Interim Provost Susan Collins on Wednesday afternoon.

Over 600 members of the University community listened in on the Zoom call while submitting questions regarding off-campus student behavior, COVID-19 testing, quarantine plans and the endowment. The discussion was moderated by Faculty Senate Chair Colleen Conway, professor of music. 

Schlissel began the meeting by acknowledging the unprecedented challenges in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the economic instabilities brought on by the pandemic, renewed commitment to anti-racism and the newest guidelines for international students.

While an in-person teaching semester is ideal, Schlissel noted, there are risks with bringing students back to campus, particularly for the more vulnerable faculty and staff. Schlissel said concerns with student behaviors off-campus could potentially be dangerous for those instructors who are more prone to severe illness.

“I'm very worried particularly about high-risk faculty and staff, and making sure that we can protect people that come to work to help teach our students and deliver our curriculum and fulfill our mission, particularly those that are under more than usual amounts of risk,” Schlissel said.

Despite these concerns, Schlissel also detailed some sources of optimism in the midst of re-opening the University. He shared that out of the tens of thousands of students, only 49 students have tested positive for COVID-19. Michigan Medicine workers who’ve served at the height of the pandemic have had little to no acquired infections.

“There’s a toolbox of public health interventions that if we can get a reasonable level of compliance, we can make it through a semester and deliver that high quality of education that the Michigan faculty and graduate instructors pride themselves on,” Schlissel said.

Collins also addressed how the University will approach deciding which classes will be taught in-person versus remotely. Recognizing that the structure of classes vary between disciplines and programs, Collins noted that the policies must follow a decentralized and consistent approach. Additionally, the University will be focusing on incorporating self-identification surveys from faculty members and Graduate Student Instructors.

“To respect people's privacy, we will ask instructors to self-identify in a number of broad categories, and not request medical documentation or other written information, but a self-identification approach,” Collins said.

Faculty members who are 65 and older or who have conditions identified by the CDC as high risk for severe illness will not be expected to teach unless they prefer to, Collins added. Additionally, accommodations will be made for faculty members and GSIs who self-identify into a number of categories such as concerns for other household members, childcare availability or any other reasons that instructors may have a strong preference to teach remotely. 

“We believe that this approach will enable us to accomplish our commitment to offering a high quality slate of in-person offerings for students who are on campus as well as a slate for those who are remote while incorporating instructor preference,” Collins said.

One of the questions submitted in the Q&A portion of the town hall asked about specifics with on-campus COVID-19 testing. Schlissel said the University is currently developing plans to test all asymptomatic returning students, including those living in dorms. The University is also looking to partner with sororities and fraternities as well as other large off-campus housing facilities to diminish the frequency asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. 

“We’ll also be doing surveillance testing during the course of the semester, testing in our dormitories and elsewhere just to track the prevalence of the asymptomatic state of the disease across the campus,” Schlissel said. “There’ll be a surveillance component, a symptom-based component and then this initial screen for students who are arriving back.”

While the University will offer tests to anyone who is symptomatic, there are no plans to screen all faculty and staff, according to Schlissel. 

For students who test positive for COVID-19, Schlissel said University Housing is making quarantine arrangements for extra living spaces. In addition, the University has reserved spaces in local hotels with lower customer turnout to support quarantine measures for students who test positive while on campus this fall. 

“We’ve got a little bit of expansion room, but we’re building in ways to help take care of students during quarantine periods, make sure they remain connected to their academics, make sure they’re getting fed and watered and just to help take care of people who are in quarantine,” Schlissel said.

When asked about how student compliance with public health guidelines will be enforced, Collins said students and staff have been developing a Wolverine Culture of Care pledge to strengthen the communal understanding of protecting the health and well-being of the entire community.

“This is about working together to instill a different set of behaviors and an understanding of why they’re so important,” Collins said. “Student leaders have been working actively with Student Life staff to create a Wolverine Culture of Care pledge, and that will be actually a pledge that we will engage students, as well as faculty and staff, to articulate what the shared standard for public-health informed behaviors that we expect as a university community.”

Posing a follow-up question, an audience member then asked about what happens if students are not in compliance with these public-health informed behaviors. Schlissel said the University is looking to accumulate the ideas from faculty, since they are the ones who engage with students day to day.

“We’re capturing the best ideas from faculty, and we’ll spread them out through the schools and colleges, recognizing different cultures and types of instruction,” Schlissel said. “Some faculty want to use grades in a punitive fashion for kids that don’t comply, and to me, I could see if a student doesn’t comply, then you unregister them from your class. So, there are all kinds of mechanisms.”

Regardless of the policies that the University will recommend to faculty in response to student behavior, Schlissel said the University will not implement the use of policing to enforce public health guidelines. 

“What we don't want to do is turn a community of care into a culture of enforcement,” Schlissel said. “We don’t like the idea, or we won’t use our Department of Public Safety. We’re not going to find our way out of creating a culture of compliance to the larger community. The moment in our history and our relationships with one another is not the moment to use policing in a formal sense to achieve compliance.”

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.