State's three-week epidemic order puts an end to University’s attempt at a hybrid fall semester

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 6:59pm

Governor Whitmer issued a 3-week lockdown, throwing a wrench in the University's hybrid semester plans.

Governor Whitmer issued a 3-week lockdown, throwing a wrench in the University's hybrid semester plans. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

Days before the University of Michigan was set to move to fully remote instruction, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, put the final nail in the coffin of what was left of the school’s plan for a hybrid semester.

Gordon joined Whitmer at a press conference Sunday night to announce new restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 as statewide cases skyrocket, breaking records. 

“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date,” Whitmer said at the rare weekend briefing, which occurred on short notice in response to alarming trends across the state. “The situation has never been more dire. We are at the precipice and we need to take some action. As the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors, this virus will spread. More people will get sick and there will be more fatalities.”

The new rules from MDHHS — which mandate colleges end in-person classes — change very little for the University, which is already almost entirely remote. However, it marks the final blow to the school’s effort to partially reopen for the fall semester. 

University President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins wrote in a Monday email to the campus community that the University would shift all coursework, except any associated with training medical professionals, to be conducted remotely to follow the state’s guidelines. This only affects the three days before Thanksgiving break. 

Previously, under the University’s initial plan, all undergraduate classes were scheduled to go fully remote after the holiday through the end of the semester on Dec. 18, but the state order shortened that timeline. 

“Over the past several months, we have been asked to continually adjust our activities to help protect the health and safety of the larger community,” Schlissel and Collins wrote. “We know this will cause some disruptions in a few courses and labs that were meeting in person through Friday – and we appreciate everyone’s continued diligence and resilience as we work to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The state’s three-week epidemic order is not the first time the school’s operations have faced significant disruptions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Administrators have had to switch gears several times over the semester to deal with unforeseen circumstances stemming from the pandemic, ranging from lockdowns to labor disputes.

Schlissel started off the year on an optimistic note, saying in August, “I think it’s more likely than not that we will make it through the semester,” even as other colleges reversed course on their reopening plans. 

The choice to move forward with reopening sparked criticism from students, staff and faculty, who complained about the lack of testing and called for more stringent restrictions regarding campus operations. 

“It’s not realistic that students are going to come back on campus and not bring COVID with them and spread it amongst themselves,” Rackham student Gabby Sarpy said at a protest in August. 

The semester began with about 78% of classes taught remotely, but outbreaks on campus in September and October prompted Washtenaw County to issue a stay-in-place order for undergraduate students on Oct. 20. The order carved out several exceptions for students, including attending class. 

Courses that were significantly enhanced by in-person learning did not have to move to remote instruction under the county’s October order. According to the University Record, 90% of undergraduate courses are now being taught remotely. 

Students raised doubts about the stay-in-place order, even calling it a targeted “anti-party ordinance.” The order, however, seemed to work. When it was first issued, COVID-19 cases associated with the University represented more than 60% of local cases. Two weeks later, University students accounted for about a third of cases in the county. 

According to Schlissel, the University saw an “unacceptable level of COVID-19 cases” among undergraduates, both on campus and off. He said the experience pushed the University to shift away from the model used for fall. 

Now, the plan for winter will offer increased testing, and no instructor will be required to teach in person. Residence halls will be closed to students who do not present a compelling need to stay on campus. 

Many of the components of the winter plan align with demands voiced by the Graduate Employees’ Organization earlier in the semester when Graduate Student Instructors went on strike.

“In some ways, it feels like the admin has come to their senses, but really I think this was a calculated business decision — ‘We were willing to risk community safety to maintain tuition and housing revenue, but doing that hurt us so we’re shifting course,’” GEO member Dom Bouavichith said in a previous interview with The Daily.

In addition to graduate students, residential advisers went on strike due to the working conditions in residence halls. Some dining hall staff also spoke out in protest of the University’s handling of the reopening.  

The pandemic also threw a wrench in the University’s research apparatus. The University placed nonessential research largely on hold in March. Activities slowly ramped up throughout the year, with adjustments made for large spikes in cases in the community. 

At the start of the school year, only senior students already trained in their respective research could resume work in person, but by mid-October, all undergraduates were allowed to participate again. The county’s stay-in-place order limited research activities for undergraduates shortly after they were allowed to return, leaving many students feeling as though they were back at square one. 

While the state’s new rules do not limit the University’s research, Schlissel and Collins noted they would adjust operation policies out of an excess of caution. Research laboratories will continue to operate at 60% density, and undergraduate students can still help out with in-person research. 

However, according to a Monday update from Vice President of Research Rebecca Cunningham, certain human research studies “should prepare to pause in-person activity” with research participants by Friday at the latest.

Cunningham also noted that 12 researchers who had been working in person have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days. 

As cases continue to rise across the state, Michigan Medicine is preparing for another rise in hospitalizations.  

“We’re more prepared because we’ve seen this movie before,” said Robert Dickson, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “We didn’t know what to expect in March really, at that point all we had were anecdotes from our colleagues in Asia and Europe. By now we have a luxury of lots and lots of experience, randomized controlled trials and rigorously done observational studies.” 

Classes for winter semester will begin mid-January.

Managing News Editors Leah Graham and Sayali Amin can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu and sayalia@umich.edu


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