'Cautiously pessimistic': Students express mixed opinions regarding in-person fall announcement

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 - 11:21pm

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When incoming Business freshman Jessica Goldberg heard University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel’s announcement of a “public health-informed in-person fall semester,” she said she was ecstatic.

“This wasn’t how I planned for my senior year (in high school) to end, and I was really looking forward to looking on campus in the fall,” Goldberg said. “It’s kind of what I’ve envisioned all these years, so I was really excited to hear that I would be moving in a dorm and being on campus and getting the full college experience.”

Goldberg said she places her trust in the University administration to take appropriate action in the worst case scenario, and therefore, does not have concerns for the fall semester.

“When coronavirus first started it was really scary, and I do think we’re going to have to adjust to a new normal,” Goldberg said. “But also, there’s also that fact that life has to return to some sense of normalcy ... You can’t be concerned for the rest of your life.”  

In contrast, Art & Design senior Leila Mullison said they had mixed feelings after hearing the decision. 

“On the one hand, as purely an academic student, I don’t love online classes,” Mullison said. "I have trouble focusing on them and staying in the same place for very long periods of time. At the same time, as a person who owns a human body, it doesn’t feel very good or very safe to be moving somewhere right now and to be interacting with a bunch of new people and to be living in a community environment.”

The decision for an in-residence fall semester has been highly contested across the United States. On separate ends of the spectrum, California State University announced a fully online fall semester and Michigan State University declared in-person classes in May.

LSA freshman Dylan Blumenthal said he was in favor of the decision since it was a better option than taking classes fully remotely at home. However, he said he has some reservations regarding the announcement. As an honors student, Blumenthal will be living in the dorms, and under the new plans, rooms in the residence halls are considered a “family unit” where safety regulations are relaxed. However, outside of the rooms, students are expected to social distance and wear face coverings.

“It sounded like the only person we’re allowed to see without social distancing is our roommate,” Blumenthal said. “Based on the guidelines that were released, it sounds like we’ll just be in our rooms taking online classes a lot.”

Blumenthal told The Daily he has debated taking a gap year even though fall semester is in-person due to the lack of social life and potential extracurricular activities.

Though unconfirmed by the University, Information senior Caitlin Beach believes the driving factor behind the decision is finances. 

“I don’t like that reasoning,” Beach said. “When I hear that, and I hear them saying ‘We need to be in person,’ I hear them saying ‘We understand that there is a possibility that you will get sick. But it’s worth it to us for you to be here.’”

In April, the University released a statement estimating a loss of between $400 million and $1 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic this calendar year. Schlissel and the chancellors at the Dearborn and Flint campuses also voluntarily cut their salaries by 10 percent. Other University leadership received a 5 percent salary reduction. 

Beach also noted concerns around the Ann Arbor economy. After the transition to online classes and students left campus, many businesses created GoFundMe pages and told The Daily they were uncertain about their future prospects. Espresso Royale Coffee, a coffee shop that served the Ann Arbor community for 33 years, officially announced all operations have ceased around the country. 

Despite the concerns for Ann Arbor businesses, Beach said bringing people back to campus will only make the problem worse since the influx of students would put a strain on businesses.      

“You’re increasing the load on services in the town significantly,” Beach said. “You’re increasing so many pathways for disease to spread, and while we can say the economy needs these people, the economy is something we built for us. The economy isn’t something we serve, the economy serves us.”

In addition, Beach said she is concerned the University is bringing back too many students unnecessarily, which poses a health danger for students without a stable home

“I’m afraid that those people who might not have the best home situation are being put into a situation where they’re forced to come back, and it’s a higher risk situation (since there’s more students),” Beach said.

Engineering junior Affan Syed also shared concerns regarding the reopening of campus. 

“I understand why people want to go back, and even I want to go back but, at the same time, I don’t think it’s a good idea and I don’t think it’s going to work out,” Syed said. “I just think the nature of the disease and the nature of a college campus combined isn’t a good idea.”

Syed called attention to the idea of a “social contract” that binds people to uphold certain safety standards during COVID-19. He said Schlissel has reiterated expectations for the community, pointing to a statement made in early June.

“Our hopes for the fall semester and beyond rely on everyone continuing to care for one another by respecting social distancing, wearing face coverings when six feet of distance can’t be maintained, practicing sound hygiene, and keeping density low by working from home whenever possible,” Schlissel wrote. 

This commitment, Syed believes, might not be upheld.

“I feel like it’s too much to ask from college students, especially how last semester went,” Syed said. “Even as the University was shutting down and quarantine was starting, people were still going to parties (and) Rick’s was still open. There’s no way they could possibly enforce it.”

In addition, Syed noted he often needs to take the bus to travel across campus since he is an Engineering student. He said he does not see a reasonable solution that keeps people six feet apart on the busses. 

“Those things going to North (Campus) would be absolutely packed,” Syed said. “When you take a sandwich and fill it up too much and stuff is just falling out — it’d look like that (with) people just falling out. If the doors were open, people would be about to slip out because they didn’t have anything to stand against … Not to mention the crowds of people standing at the bus station waiting for the bus to arrive.”

While Schlissel has reiterated the notion of being “cautiously optimistic” for fall semester, Syed said he is “cautiously pessimistic” and feels as if the decision was made without much outside input. 

Mullison agrees, citing they are "anxiously realistic" about the fall. They said the decision felt like it was based off of old public sentiments at the end of the winter 2020 semester when classes were moved online. However, these sentiments are not reflective of today’s, according to Mullison.

“I think they’re doing the best they can because right now it’s bad and it’s hard to make a good choice in a bad situation,” Mullison said. “(But) going from my house where I live with my parents who are both at work for the bare minimum and social distancing from everyone to a new apartment with a ton more people … and the need to take a bus to get food for myself ... These are things I don’t think anyone in the administration was necessarily thinking about. Maybe it’s not their responsibility to think about it, but it does kind of stink.”

As a student that studied abroad during the semester COVID-19 hit, Mullison said the experience moving back home due to the virus was traumatic. 

“I had four days notice to go home four months early, and that was so anxiety-inducing and crazy, you know, moving from another country back home on such short notice,” Mullison said. “I don't want to relive that to any degree even if it’s just moving from Ann Arbor back home.”

They noted regardless of when students return home, they all pose a threat to their family members.

“(Returning home) is not that simple either,” Mullison said. “If someone gets the virus and then it spreads in the community and they go ‘Oh! Oh, oopsies,’ and send us back home, now all of our families are at risk too.”

Both Syed and Mullison said they would prefer having the administration focus on increasing the quality of online instruction instead of trying to fit in face-to-face classes.

“There’s no good answer and I do appreciate they are trying to give us the highest quality education, but I would feel safer if they were working on making classes as good as they can be online instead of trying to get us to (Ann Arbor) for the minimum amount of time in-person they can,” Mullison said. 

Summer Managing News Editor Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu.