From The Daily: Skepticism for winter 2021

Monday, November 16, 2020 - 10:08am

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Ahmad Kady/The Michigan Daily

On Nov. 6, the University of Michigan announced a plan for the winter semester that included major changes to on-campus housing, class formats and testing protocols and accessibility. Most notably, the University will be converting on-campus housing into single-occupancy units, with undergraduates required to provide a reason to stay in one. Additionally, COVID-19 testing will be made mandatory for all students living in on-campus housing or participating in on-campus activities, and an even larger proportion of classes will be moved online than were during the fall semester. Upon releasing the plan, University President Mark Schlissel stated, “The changes we’ve made for winter semester reflect what we’ve learned and what we must do to keep our community safe.”

It’s no secret that both the administration and the students made mistakes this semester. We’ve recorded thousands of cases of COVID-19, which resulted in a countywide shutdown of undergraduate activity. Now is the time to prove we can do better. The University needs to expand housing to accommodate students with special cases and make their criteria to stay on campus more widely known and accessible for those not able to move home. The University also needs to release a clear and comprehensive plan to actually implement effective COVID-19 testing, which did not happen this fall. Students need to take this opportunity to make responsible decisions going forward.

The looming uncertainty of housing security haunts freshmen, causing them to seek off-campus alternatives instead of re-applying for residence halls where they will also avoid mandatory testing by the University. While the new plan was implemented in hopes of reducing off-campus social gatherings — citing that there is “little evidence” that on-campus activities largely contribute to the spread of the virus — it seems that the new plan is doing just the opposite. 

Furthermore, the University’s plan could encourage those who have neglected social distancing guidelines to push parties further underground, while those who have honored the University’s policies are left in the dust. And while the University is allowing select students to return to campus housing if their circumstances qualify them for need-based on-campus housing and they applied by Nov. 11, the requirements appear muddy. The qualifications for need-based housing include students who are taking a necessary in-person class, who have financial needs, who have wellness or safety concerns, international students and ResStaff. However, the University neglects to precisely define “wellness or safety concerns,” which could potentially exclude students with mental health concerns if they aren’t prioritized. In addition, the closing of residence halls disproportionately affects marginalized students who don’t have the privilege of signing a lease with five days of notice, as well as students who cannot afford to take a gap year or gap semester due to financial aid that requires them to enroll as a full-time student.

The University is scapegoating freshmen as the culprits of the “unacceptable” levels of COVID-19 cases this fall rather than admitting to their own wrongdoings. As predicted by the graduate student employees in the beginning of this semester, the University’s plan for the fall was insufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and strict changes are necessary. While students do have agency of their own, by relying on students to socially distance on a campus designed to promote socialization, the University is at fault for the rise in cases we have experienced this semester. Earlier, the Graduate Employees’ Organization strike campaigned for the Division of Public Safety and Security funds to be relocated to the implementation of COVID-19 protections and for mandatory testing. Instead of blaming freshmen, the University should have listened more to the demands of the GEO strike, or at least have credited them in the plan for the winter semester.

The University’s announcement for the upcoming semester contains plans for more robust testing, including testing all on-campus residents and attendees of in-person classes or research. However, the breakage of all residence hall leases that has pushed on-campus students to scramble for sublets and winter leases decreases the number of students the University would be responsible for testing. While the increased availability of asymptomatic testing will increase overall testing, students off-campus are unlikely to make the effort to get tested often without enforcement, especially as the weather becomes colder. Many other universities across the nation have managed to increase testing numbers through penalizing students for not getting tested or even offering prizes and rewards for getting tested. The University should consider implementing similar systems to encourage more widespread testing.

The University witnessed a spike in third-party testing this semester. Many students have voiced concerns over being forced into the infamous isolation housing and difficulties in getting tested through the University Health Service. The winter 2021 testing plan does guarantee “weekly asymptomatic testing available for all students … who are not otherwise covered by a mandatory program.” For this policy to be effective, however, the University must make it easy for students to sign up for testing, offer different testing locations for accessibility to off-campus students and encourage all students to get tested routinely. 

The success of the University’s plan to control COVID-19 during the winter 2021 semester cannot rely upon administrative efforts alone. We, as students, must be willing to follow public health guidelines, including the sacrifices that entails. While many students have been staying socially distanced, a large portion of undergraduates have continued to engage in unsafe activities. Fraternity & Sorority Life members continue to host and attend large indoor gatherings and hold in-person recruitment events. As a result, FSL has experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. Students also continue to gather in large numbers in and around bars and restaurants near campus, including the Brown Jug, which became a COVID-19 hotspot earlier this semester. And as Michigan football began its delayed season, the “Overheard at umich” Facebook page featured several images documenting large and unmasked tailgate events. While the University has failed us with an insufficient plan for fall semester, we have also failed each other.

Many students have expressed frustration that administration is shifting blame onto uncooperative undergraduates, but we need to stop giving them this option in the first place. Though administration bears the ultimate responsibility, we should engage on an individual level — the same way many environmental activists view individual climate action. Just as no one person can stop climate change, no one student can control the COVID-19 pandemic. But the combination of individual efforts sends a collective message to the University that we are willing to make sacrifices and concessions for our community, and we expect nothing less from them. Finally, we need to hold one another accountable with student-led initiatives, similar to the “F*ck It Won’t Cut It” campaign spearheaded by Boston University undergraduates. Wolverines should collectively encourage one another to stay COVID-conscious this winter — and should productively call one another out when we don’t.

The winter 2021 plan presents significant changes to life at the University next semester. In many ways, this plan has been the one the community demanded for fall — limited on-campus housing, widespread testing and courses held remotely whenever possible. But transitioning to this plan in the middle of the school year will cause disruption for many students. Moreover, the fumbling of the fall semester by administration has created skepticism toward the University’s ability to pull off the revamped winter plan. Ultimately, next semester will be an exercise in trust-building for students, both with administration and with each other. Will the University prioritize students over profits to keep us safe? Will they take full responsibility for their missteps rather than shifting blame onto students? And will students be willing to make personal sacrifices to demonstrate that they take this crisis seriously? The failures of this fall have sown animosity and distrust within our community. The winter plan may be the first step toward improvement — but it could also make things even worse.


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