After ‘unacceptable level’ of COVID-19 cases this fall, U-M makes changes for winter semester

Friday, November 6, 2020 - 11:02am

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File Photo/Daily

Plans for the winter semester at the University of Michigan will be significantly different from the fall reopening plan that earned the school a heavy dose of criticism and eventually culminated in a temporary stay-in-place order for undergraduates.

Only certain freshmen will be allowed to return to on-campus housing, the University will increase the availability of testing, and offer fewer classes in an in-person or hybrid format, according to a Friday email from University President Mark Schlissel. Mandatory testing will be implemented for students living in University Housing or participating in on-campus activities.

Though Schlissel previously said the winter semester would closely mirror this fall, this semester saw widespread protests, including strikes by graduate students, resident advisers and dining hall workers over safety concerns related to the pandemic, and the new plan noticeably differs from the protocol in effect at the beginning of the fall.

After COVID-19 cases soared, with over 1,100 new cases reported in October, the county issued a stay-in-place order that applied only to undergraduate students, leading many to question the University’s approach. Though the order has expired, cases within the U-M community are still high: 299 cases were reported in the past 14 days as of Friday morning.

At the start of the fall semester, 78% of undergraduate classes were online, but after the stay-in-place order, only courses deemed essential remained in person. The University’s winter semester plan will offer more remote courses, adhering more closely to the approach used after the county issued its order.

University officials largely blamed social gatherings for the rise in cases on campus. In his email Friday, Schlissel said changes to the University’s operations were needed to avoid a repeat of the past few months.

“Our experience this semester resulted in an unacceptable level of COVID-19 cases among our undergraduate students, both on campus and off, that got to a level that threatened our public health capacity to control the spread of the virus,” Schlissel said. “The changes we’ve made for winter semester reflect what we’ve learned and what we must do to keep our community safe.”

There is “little evidence” that going to campus for activities related to the University has led to the spread of COVID-19, according to the announcement, so the school plans to continue offering a hybrid format in the winter semester. No instructor will be required to teach in person. The universal right to work remotely was a major demand of the Graduate Employees’ Organization during a strike at the start of the school year.

The University will be implementing weekly mandatory testing for everyone who lives on campus, uses campus facilities or works on campus. Anyone who is not required to undergo mandatory testing has the option to opt into weekly asymptomatic testing. This is a stark change from this semester’s testing plan, which drew criticism from students and experts alike. This semester, the University had no widespread mandatory testing program. Instead, it relied on symptomatic and contact-based testing as well as asymptomatic surveillance testing in which students who signed up were randomly selected each week to receive tests.

The University will be reducing undergraduate housing density by limiting on-campus housing to students who meet certain need-based criteria.

“Based on expert advice that lowering density in residence halls decreases COVID-19 transmission, undergraduate students who don’t need to live in residence halls should remain at their permanent residences for the semester, according to the plan,” the release said. “All U-M Housing contracts for undergraduate residents will be canceled for the winter semester.”

Clusters in dorms sparked concern on campus. Shortly before the county issued its stay-in-place order for undergrads, residents of Mary Markley Residence Hall were asked to adhere to enhanced social distancing and avoid attending in-person classes for two weeks after a spike in cases at the dorm.

Vice President of Student Life Martino Harmon addressed the disruption the new policy may cause in Friday’s announcement.

“We know that asking students to leave their residence halls in the middle of the year is disappointing and disruptive and we apologize for that,” Harmon said. “The community created within a residence hall is an important part of the college experience, but safety has to come first.”

Students mourned the loss of fall break this October, complaining that the absence of the short hiatus from classes heightened their anxiety in an already stressful year. According to Schlissel’s email Friday, in lieu of the canceled spring break, the University will implement a total of two “well-being breaks” on Feb. 24 and March 23. 

In his email Friday, Schlissel said the University considered a wide range of factors and incorporated feedback from faculty, staff and students when making this decision.

“Our plan for the winter term reflects the best of what we learned and what we’ve heard that you hope to achieve going forward,” Schlissel wrote.

Throughout the fall semester, U-M and Ann Arbor officials have emphasized the importance of educating people who violate COVID-19 guidelines rather than punishing them. Schlissel said the University plans to up its game and said potential penalties include the termination of housing contracts and removing U-M recognition for student organizations hosting or participating in social gatherings. 

“Students returning to campus in the winter will encounter a strict, no-tolerance approach to enforcing COVID-19-related policies,” the email reads. 

Over 1,000 faculty, staff and students have signed an open letter calling for the University to address shortcomings of the fall reopening plan, including the testing headaches that lead students to get tested off-campus. The letter specifically calls for virtual classes, de-densification of campus, expanded testing and tracing and community public tracing. It also asks the University to implement some of these changes prior to the start of the Winter semester.

According to the letter, measures such as the introduction of mandatory testing for all students living in the area and improved capacities for tracing and quarantining “should not be put off until Winter Term.” Rather, they “should begin to be implemented as soon as possible to help reduce the severity of the current increase in infections in the University community and surrounding communities, and to help prevent the spread of infection as our students return to their families and home communities.”

Students have mixed feelings about the prospect of attempting another hybrid semester. Some said they rely on in-person labs, while others were more wary of attending anything that would put them face-to-face with other people.  

LSA sophomore Sophie Boock told The Daily despite the shortcomings of the fall semester, she’ll be happy to come back in the winter.

“I always think there’s room for more improvement, but I think we can take this and keep going,” Boock said. “We love it here — we came back for a reason.” 

Daily News Editor Emma Stein and Daily Staff Reporter Dominic Coletti can be reached at enstein@umich.edu and dcoletti@umich.edu.


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