‘U’ is positioning students to take the fall for their mistakes

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 2:07pm

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As schools around the country reverse their face-to-face reopening plans, it seems less and less likely that the University of Michigan will make it through the first few weeks of classes with the current hybrid model. If classes get moved to be fully remote, the blame will be shifted to students — it could have worked, but we just weren’t “responsible” enough. 

In an interview with The Daily, President Mark Schlissel said he “get(s) 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 ... I think you can and will step up as a community.” 

Here’s the thing: Even if 99 percent of the U-M undergraduate student body are compliant, choose not to party, social distance and wash their hands, we could still have a massive community outbreak. As of Aug. 6 — well before tens of thousands of students from around the country descended upon Ann Arbor — a single gathering of 100 students at a party (one-third of 1 percent of the undergraduate population) carried between a 30 to 50 percent chance that someone had COVID-19. It is probably much higher now that students from states with higher incidence rates have returned to campus. 

Furthermore, while partying may be the most dangerous thing college-aged students can do right now, many students also must work service industry jobs which put them at risk. A recent Atlantic article rightly pointed out that a recent rise in cases in people under 35 would be predictable irrespective of parties, as newly-opened restaurants and bars are overwhelmingly staffed by young people.

An outbreak would be difficult to control even if every person on campus were required to get tested, but only students living on-campus, about a quarter of students overall, carry that requirement. One party is enough for a residence hall outbreak, or several. The problem is that President Schlissel’s plan relies on 100 percent compliance, something that he, as a medical professional and rational adult, should understand is utterly unrealistic. The opening of campus isn’t a reasonable risk, it is a recipe for a clusterfuck, as put so eloquently by The Daily Tar Heel.

The confusing part is that Schlissel understands compliance is unrealistic. In an email to faculty and staff on Aug. 18, he wrote, “after a few weeks, non-compliance among students might become common,” as a way to defend why the University will not be doing large-scale testing on asymptomatic individuals. It must take some mental gymnastics to write an email effectively saying there will be too much virus in the community to test, but we are going to open anyway. Research indicates that in the case of coronavirus testing, quantity is better than quality, and testing all students every two days is recommended. If this is impossible, as Schlissel suggests, we cannot open, period. 

Personal responsibility is important, but it is not the solution to a public health crisis. Don’t get me wrong, when I see people posting pictures of their parties and group events, I get angry. I think it is selfish and irresponsible to be hanging out in large groups of people. That said, 20-year-olds should not be responsible for the health of the nation. Irresponsibility is not a “risk” in the 18 to 22 year old age group, it is a given. Willful ignorance is the only explanation for President Schlissel’s refusal to recognize the impracticality of a plan predicated on the notoriously excellent decision-making skills of young adults. Countries that have successfully curbed this virus do not have supernaturally responsible young people; they have competent leadership that managed to control the virus before widespread quarantine fatigue set in. From New Zealand to Rwanda, swift governmental response with strong messaging and actions that emphasized scientific expertise has controlled, if not eliminated the virus. 

President Schlissel is not a governmental figure, but he does have the power to make decisions that will impact the health of tens of thousands of people. He is not making decisions in the best interest of the U-M community or the broader Ann Arbor community. He is making decisions in the best interest of the University’s bottom line. One could argue this is also a failure of the government or at the least, a flaw in our system. In countries where tuition is free, I don’t think they are panicking about enrollment numbers. Students have every right to question whether an online education is worth the same cost (or 1.9 percent more). If school were free, what would there be to question? 

The virus is not Schlissel’s fault and the lack of control in this country is not his fault, but any disease or death that results from the opening of campus? That is his fault. Schlissel has all of the science he needs to see that opening is not the way to go. If a statement comes out blaming students, I hope the Michigan community calls it out. A plan that relies on 100 percent compliance to work is not a plan, it’s a prayer.

Jessie Mitchell can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu.