As other universities reverse course on in-person classes, Schlissel remains optimistic

Tuesday, August 18, 2020 - 6:13pm

President Schlissel remains optimistic about the upcoming semester despite changing plans from other universities.

President Schlissel remains optimistic about the upcoming semester despite changing plans from other universities. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel is still holding out hope for a successful hybrid semester even as other schools across the country are pivoting to fully online classes amid COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses.

In an email to University faculty and staff on Tuesday afternoon, Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins said the University is planning to “ramp up to welcome a reduced number of students, faculty and staff back to campus.” The message came after some staff staged a protest in front of the Fleming Administration Building and Schlissel’s home earlier in the day.

“Short of a total lockdown, there is nothing we can do right now as individuals, as a university, or as a society that does not involve risk and mitigation strategies,” Schlissel and Collins wrote.

Students will start moving into University residential halls in less than a week. About 30 percent of classes will be held in hybrid or in-person formats.

Schlissel and Collins wrote the University “will continue to evaluate circumstances and change our plans as necessary.”

In an interview early Tuesday night, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald confirmed the University was still preparing for the hybrid semester. 

“At this point, we’re moving ahead with our plans,” Fitzgerald said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the University of Notre Dame signaled it will be temporarily going remote as cases spike in South Bend. Shortly after, Michigan State University announced it would be moving to remote instruction for undergraduates. 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved fully online and closed its residential halls Monday afternoon after outbreaks on campus. 

In a statement, MSU President Samuel Stanley cited outbreaks at other campuses as cause to abandon face-to-face instruction.

“Given the current status of the virus in our country — particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they re-populate their campus communities — it has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus,” President Stanley said. 

Schlissel has struck a different and much more optimistic tone on the prospect of bringing students back to campus. In an interview last week, he said “it’s more likely than not that we will make it through the semester.”

Schlissel also noted differences between the University and MSU, saying the stances taken by the two administrations on students returning to campus are not the same.

“MSU and us are not that different in that they are conducting a hybrid semester, I guess where we differ with myself and President Stanley and MSU is he very actively and has been quoted, at least, as saying, ‘please stay home,’” Schlissel said last week. “What I’ve said is, if you’re at all concerned about your health, or if you don’t think you can follow the public health guidelines that we’ve pushed out there, which 70 percent of our credit hours are online, so you can stay home, get a full curriculum. And you should do that.”

“But if you come back to Ann Arbor, we want you to take on the responsibility and the accountability of living up to the pledge we’re gonna ask you to sign, and the culture of care that student groups have helped us develop to diminish the likelihood of spreading the disease,” Schlissel continued.

Earlier this month, Schlissel told faculty “one significant factor that influences our thinking” on reopening is that “a large fraction of our students will return to Ann Arbor … regardless of whether there is any in-person instruction.” 

He said this hypothesis comes from students staying in their off-campus residences in the spring and over the summer, as well as the University’s surveys of the student body, though the message does not specify when those surveys were conducted.

“Therefore, overall risk of disease transmission in Ann Arbor might not be affected greatly were we to go fully remote, and many think that being linked to campus will result in improved adherence to public health guidance,” Schlissel wrote in a message to faculty and staff on Aug. 4.

In their email Tuesday, Schlissel and Collins described the testing regimen the University will have in place. The current testing capacity is 10,000 per week at Michigan Medicine. Priority for testing will be given to symptomatic members of the campus community.

“Anyone who is symptomatic will be tested, with students tested through University Health Service and university faculty and staff tested through their health care providers,” they wrote. “We have set aside 600 single rooms for isolation or quarantine for students if needed. And we are training a team of public health and other graduate students who will serve as contact tracers, under professional guidance, for our campus community.”

The University will also test around 3,000 to 3,500 individuals each week for its “random, opt-in” surveillance testing program, they wrote. This testing will be focused on the highest risk individuals, such as those living in communal housing. 

“At this time, there is nothing from public health guidance that suggests we should be conducting widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals,” Schlissel and Collins wrote.

Various public health experts have called for testing of asymptomatic people as a means to better contain COVID-19, arguing that many of the people who carry and transmit the virus are unaware that they are doing so.

The University has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to test students for COVID-19. Schlissel and Collins noted that widespread testing would be a major challenge, calling testing a “limited resource” that must be prioritized.

“The resources required to collect, process and follow up on more than 15,000 results a day far exceeds what our infrastructure can currently support,” they wrote. “Indeed, at this point, testing all students, faculty and staff on a twice a week basis would represent more than half the total number of tests currently being done in the entire state of Michigan. Furthermore, the purely logistical challenge of performing ongoing testing on this scale, especially of students, has been illustrated at other institutions.”

They specifically mentioned the testing programs proposed by Cornell University and the University of Illinois. Cornell University is requiring all students and staff moving back to the area to undergo surveillance testing throughout the semester, while the University of Illinois would test all students and staff participating in in-person classes twice weekly.

However, Schlissel and Collins said these programs “discussed as ‘standards’” have not been “rigorously evaluated.” They also said these mass testing approaches by other universities, which he called “start-up research,” would use “homegrown, high-throughput tests” of unknown sensitivity and specificity. 

“To the extent that COVID-19 is an asymptomatic infection with a low prevalence, the number of false positives might result in hundreds of uninfected students being mistakenly identified every week, each requiring follow-up placing a drain on our case investigation and quarantine capacity,” they wrote. “Furthermore, a false positive test might cause tremendous stress and anxiety. In addition, an inaccurate test can provide false assurance to a student whose subsequent behavior might then result in an increased likelihood of disease spread.”

The University has repeatedly declined to provide specific answers on the criteria and methods it will use to monitor cases and students on campus come fall, such as the threshold that would send classes fully online or how enforcement of social distancing guidelines will work.

When asked by The Daily last week about student behavior, Schlissel said he gets “a little insulted when everybody says there’s no way that students are going to wear masks, and there’s no way that they’re not going to party in dangerous fashions.”

However, in the email co-signed by Collins, Schlissel conceded that “non-compliance” with social distancing could be an issue.

“Other experiences also suggest that after a few weeks, non-compliance among students might become common and we see many problems with making such testing mandatory or linking it to building access as some schools have done,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, we will track the experience with frequent mass testing at other institutions and move in that direction if efficacy is proven and testing at that level becomes possible for us as new tests are developed and implemented here.”

Classes are set to start in less than two weeks, on Monday, Aug. 31.

Managing News Editor Leah Graham contributed reporting.

Managing News Editor Sayali Amin can be reached at sayalia@umich.edu. Daily News Editors Liat Weinstein and Claire Hao can be reached at weinsl@umich.edu and cmhao@umich.edu.