Students expect 'U' to roll back reopening as colleges backtrack on fall plans

Tuesday, August 18, 2020 - 8:05pm

As multiple colleges begin to roll back their plans for opening school, students expect Michigan to follow.

As multiple colleges begin to roll back their plans for opening school, students expect Michigan to follow. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

As universities across the country reverse from in-person to completely remote instruction for the fall, University of Michigan students say they can see the writing on the wall: the in-residence, hybrid semester expected to start later this month may not last.

Students first expressed concern about the upcoming fall semester when the announcement for an in-person fall was made in June. While many said they were initially happy to hear that the University was planning to bring students back, they feared that the plan would not hold and the administration was placing profit above student safety. In April, the University said it estimated financial losses of between $400 million and $1 billion due to COVID-19.

Now, students like LSA senior Claire Hubbell say they see the reports coming from colleges that have already reopened — and are, in some instances, reclosing — as a harbinger for what will happen when students return to Ann Arbor at the end of August.

“Seeing how people behave at other schools who are already back at school, I have no doubt students here will do the same,” Hubbell said. “We are all getting sent home before November, I’m sure.”

College reopenings over the past month have been plagued with controversy, as the return to campus has been met with rising coronavirus case numbers despite the efforts from school leadership to slow the spread. These schools have employed guidelines such as social distancing and face covering requirements, but in some instances, the virus spread at off-campus events that universities cannot easily patrol.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which opened Aug. 10, has been the subject of national attention after clusters of the coronavirus began springing up around campus. Among the locations listed as having clusters of five or more cases was a fraternity house, residence hall and private apartment complex.

By Monday, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the virus, and another 349 have been quarantined due to possible exposure, according to UNC officials. UNC leadership said it would move instruction entirely online for undergraduates beginning Wednesday.

The University of Notre Dame, which started the semester on Aug. 10, announced Tuesday all classes will take place online for at least two weeks amid a rise in coronavirus cases around campus. The school warned students could be sent home if the number of cases does not fall. Many of the cases have been linked to an off-campus party where mask wearing and social distancing was not practiced, according to school officials.

Before classes began, schools including Princeton University, Columbia University and Ithaca College reversed course on their fall plans, citing rising positive case numbers as justification for having all coursework done remotely. 

Michigan State University — whose East Lansing campus sits about 70 miles away from Ann Arbor — also changed direction Tuesday, saying its fall semester will now be completely remote. Undergraduate students originally planning to live on campus have been asked to stay home, according to a statement from MSU President Samuel Stanley.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said in an interview with The Daily last week that the University and MSU have handled the return to campus differently, as Stanley has asked undergraduates to stay home if possible. Schlissel said the University’s approach has been to offer enough remote instruction so students do not have to return to campus if they do not want to, but students who do return will be required to abide by public health protocols.

In the same interview, Schlissel said “it's more likely than not” that the University will make it through the fall semester as planned.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed Tuesday night that the University is still planning on a “public-health informed” semester on campus.

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

Leaders who have worked on the reopenings protocols at UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame said their plans were battle-tested upon reopening. At Notre Dame, Rev. John Jenkins, who serves as president, said the school felt it could contain the spread with preventative measures and opening was “worth the risk” in an opinion piece published in the New York Times in May.

David Weber, professor and chief medical officer at UNC, called the school’s plan “sound” in an interview with The Washington Post on Aug. 11, a day after classes began. But Weber, who advised UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on reopening, also said he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend moving to a remote model if the situation changed, which is what is currently happening at the school. 

In an email to faculty and staff on Tuesday, Schlissel said the University was continuing with its plan for an in-residence, hybrid fall semester, but said the administration “will continue to evaluate circumstances and change our plans as necessary.” The email said only students who are symptomatic will be tested throughout the semester and 600 single rooms will be set aside for students to isolate or quarantine.

According to Schlissel’s email, routinely testing asymptomatic students could possibly drain resources needed to test symptomatic cases. Schlissel noted that Michigan Medicine has a testing capacity of about 10,000 tests per week. The overall enrollment on the Ann Arbor campus was just more than 48,000 students in fall 2019. 

LSA sophomore Saad Shami said he is planning on moving back to Ann Arbor for the semester and hopes that students will follow social distancing guidelines. While he isn’t optimistic about the semester, he said there is a possibility that positive cases could stay at a manageable level if the University developed a clearer plan for testing and contract tracing.

“They’re doing a good job of testing students who are going to be living in the residential halls before they come to campus,” Shami said. “I just feel like if they had something relatively similar for off-campus students, too, maybe the semester could go smoother.”

University officials have said the upcoming school year will look different from previous ones, even with bringing students back to campus. Nearly two-thirds of courses in LSA, the University’s largest school, will be held remotely, according to an analysis by The Daily. Masks are required on all school grounds.

Officials also said the social experience for students will not be the same, as the Big Ten postponed fall sporting events and Fraternity and Sorority Life has agreed to not have organized events.

But despite the changes and Wolverine Culture of Care implemented by administration, LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior Kaitlyn Tom, who will be taking classes remotely from California in fall, said off-campus events are one of her main concerns with keeping virus cases low. She said the University’s goals of keeping students socially distanced and away from large gatherings is based on “wishful thinking.”

“I just don’t want to be in the situation where I’m hearing about different cases on campus and having to go to class wondering if the person next to me was at that party where they had that huge outbreak,” Tom said.

Tom also said being on campus is not worth the stress of possibly having to evacuate campus if cases rose midway through the semester, especially when leaving would require getting on a plane.

The University has mandated a 14-day “enhanced social distance” period for students before they return to campus, but some said they are worried about the potential of contracting the virus while traveling. Students also criticized the policy for its expectation that people who have in-person jobs will stop working earlier than originally anticipated to comply.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likened college campuses — and the communal living spaces, residence halls and small apartments that students often crowd into — to long-term care facilities in terms of the rate of person-to-person transmission. As a result, many local residents have expressed concern not only about students getting infected, but also the possibility of them leading to an outbreak of cases across the city.

Hannah Maier, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Public Health who specializes in influenza and infectious diseases, said public health experts she has spoken with do not believe it is possible to safely reopen college campuses. She said colleges would be better off preparing to teach online-only this fall than attempting to bring students back. 

Maier said that, as someone who studies infectious disease, she has seen how universities are conducive to the quick spread of highly contagious viruses like coronavirus. And given how the virus spreads in groups congregating, which is also a hallmark of the typical college experience, Maier said she doesn’t expect the University to stay open for in-person instruction past October.

“Young kids definitely need the in-person instruction, but U of M can do everything online,” Maier said. “Maybe it can’t do labs this semester, or it can’t do them as well, but can pretty much do things online reasonably well. And I don’t think that it’s worth the large risk in bringing everybody back and having people travel all across the country.”

Daily News Editors Alex Harring and Liat Weinstein can be reached at harring@umich.edu and weinsl@umich.edu.