'There’s just no follow-through': Housing precautions go unenforced during move-in

Wednesday, August 26, 2020 - 10:15pm

Students move into South Quad residence hall on Tuesday.

Students move into South Quad residence hall on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Photo by John Grieve

In the main hallway of Markley Residence Hall is a selection of large blue move-in bins. Standing next to the bins is a portable whiteboard sign with a hand-written message: “Please wipe before & after use!” On the floor lies a tube of disinfectant wipes, empty. 

This week, thousands of students are moving into University of Michigan residence halls. Students still have roommates, highly contaminable areas like bathrooms are still cleaned twice a day and social distancing is difficult to regulate in the narrow hallways.

Even on paper, the University has taken a less aggressive approach than other universities. By opening at about 70 percent capacity while closing all shared spaces, the measures that the University is taking puts its residential plan in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “more risk” category.

Bowdoin College has reduced its capacity down to 40% and is requiring residents to be tested every other day during move-in and twice per week throughout the semester. Harvard University has instituted a phased introduction to campus for its residents that requires students to have three negative tests. The University of California Berkeley has converted all of its rooms to single occupancy. Michigan State University has told students they shouldn’t return to campus. 

In practice, many of the measures that the University says it’s taking are not being enforced, leaving some students confused and concerned.

Amir Baghdadchi, senior associate director of the University Housing Administration, said spacing out time slots for students to move in is the most important change Housing is taking compared to previous years. Baghdadchi said time slots were assigned to ensure that roommates are not moving in at the same time to minimize contact between families. 

“Instead of moving about 7,000 students in two and a half days, we’ll be moving thousands of students over seven days,” Baghdadchi said. “Then we used what we use every year: time slots. This actually allows us to really regulate the number of people that will be arriving up to the curb and going into a building at one time.”

The University’s new policy allows only one guest at a time to accompany a resident inside residence halls, which Baghdadchi said will limit congestion in spaces like elevators. 

“We’re really thinking about one family at a time, one student at a time, one helper at a time,” Baghdadchi said.

Two parents help their student move in to South Quad residence hall on Monday.

Two parents help their student move in to South Quad residence hall on Monday. Buy this photo
Photo by Dominick Sokotoff

But The Daily — and freshmen moving in such as Business freshman Anupama Yetukuri — saw multiple parents, siblings and other relatives all accompany students. 

“We definitely saw lots of people who just had their whole families,” Yetukuri said.

LSA freshman Ashna Mehra said she moved into her residence hall room at the same time as her roommates and their families. 

Regarding the rule of only two people in an elevator at once, LSA freshmen Meghan Dodaballapur and Josie McCarthy said this isn’t being enforced either. 

Yetukuri said it seems to her that compliance with the University’s move-in policies is a matter of choice. 

“If you choose to do it, you're doing it,” Yetukuri said. 

LSA freshman Laura Topf agreed: “There’s just no follow-through.”

This includes the University's mask requirement. The Daily saw students and guests in East Quad, South Quad, Markley and Oxford residence halls walking around hallways and sitting in common spaces maskless, even with Housing staff nearby.

The University’s testing plan, which has faced skepticism from public health experts for not being extensive enough, requires that all residents test negative before coming to campus. However, Topf said that requirement is also loosely enforced.

“We took tests, and they said to print it out and have it with us, but they never asked me for my test results,” Topf said.

Baghdadchi said students are encouraged to “stop by” other students' rooms and “drop into the doorway.” However, he said that “socializing needs to be socially distant, really outside the room.” 

Baghdadchi suggested students meet in the common areas within the residence halls. However, the University has closed these common areas. 

A parent helps his student move in to Markley residence hall on Tuesday.

A parent helps his student move in to Markley residence hall on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Photo by John Grieve

Baghdadchi said students are encouraged to meet outdoors, which, as he noted, would put them outside the purview of Michigan Housing. According to Baghdadchi, as long as residents are socially distanced, they are encouraged to explore campus as they would any other year.

“We imagine a lot of students will be doing what students do every single year,” Baghdadchi said. “Move-in comes around — it's at a ripe moment in the summer —  and the first thing students do is they go out on campus and explore it, which is what they exactly should do. Going out and experiencing campus outdoors is a low-risk activity.”

The days surrounding move-in, which students refer to as “Welcome Week,” are usually chock-full of round-the-clock parties and extravagant social events. While Welcome Week may be toned down this year, some off-campus parties continue

Residents are required to adhere to all Ann Arbor city and University guidelines, which includes a 25-person limit on outdoor gatherings. When asked what the University is doing to prevent residents from attending parties, Baghdadchi said it is up to students to adhere to the Housing contract. 

“Ultimately, students have to make choices,” Baghdadchi said. “When you choose to live with us, you’re choosing to follow the standards. And if you’re not interested in following the standards, then you’re also not interested in living in Michigan Housing.”

Baghdadchi said students understand that exercising caution is central to the success of the University’s in-residence semester.

“I think they fundamentally understand there is a connection between what they do outside the residence hall and whether we can have a residence hall,” he said.

But once a student is dropped off, the University has little control over residents’ behavior. For some residents, this is a cause for confusion and fear. For others, it’s an invitation to act freely. 

For example, LSA freshman Ryan Mulliken, who moved in on Tuesday, said he would be open to attending fraternity parties. Mulliken said he contracted COVID-19 in March, and therefore “I wouldn’t say that I’m worried, because again, I’ve had it.” 

Mulliken acknowledged that his antibodies do not guarantee immunity. He said he would be careful because he’s worried about the fate of the semester but that he’s still hoping to go out.

A student moves in to Alice Lloyd residence hall on Monday.

A student moves in to Alice Lloyd residence hall on Monday. Buy this photo
Photo by Dominick Sokotoff

Topf said it’s unclear what students are and are not allowed to do. 

“They never went over the rules,” Topf said. “There’s no one in the halls making sure people don’t go into other people's rooms. There’s a big group of freshmen sitting in a circle close to each other with no masks on."

Yetukuri said she is concerned about students socializing unsafely. She said enforcement from the University is ineffective in preventing her and her peers from partying.

“The only reason I wouldn’t go is because I don’t want (COVID-19),” Yetukuri said. 

When Resident Advisors pushed administration to give them more testing in a town hall with the Housing and Student Life offices, Robert Ernst, director of University Health Service, said, “Having a test doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID.” Ernst’s comments on testing, as well as University President Mark Schlissel’s, have been questioned by several public health experts.

Topf said she had hoped she could count on University officials and staff, but her experience with move-in has shown her she can’t. 

“I wish I wouldn’t have to depend on other 17-year-olds to be safe and that I could trust teachers will help us and other adults, but it's just not the case,” Topf said.

After speaking with The Daily Tuesday, Baghdadchi wrote in an email to The Daily Wednesday that Michigan Housing is “recalibrating some of the policies.”

Daily Staff Reporter John Grieve can be reached at jgrieve@umich.edu.