From The Daily: The University can do more to protect its community

Monday, September 7, 2020 - 1:44pm

–

Design courtesy of Ahmad Kady

The University of Michigan’s reopening has been fraught with challenges and has met much criticism from faculty, students and Ann Arbor residents alike. Messaging from upper administration and University President Mark Schlissel throughout the summer months leading up to reopening has been remarkably inconsistent. From saying that the assertion that students won’t follow safety protocol is “offensive” to analogizing student violations of distancing guidelines to the HIV epidemic, Schlissel especially has come under severe scrutiny, resulting in the consideration of a vote of no confidence by the Faculty Senate. Reports of precautionary guidelines being unenforced during undergraduate move-in and unlawful student gatherings have only compounded on an increasing lack of faith in the University’s flawed reopening strategy. 

We are calling on University leadership to re-evaluate its current plan for the fall 2020 semester. Provisions must include better contact tracing and the use of alternate testing methods, such as weekly wastewater testing in residence halls to monitor possible outbreaks and saliva testing, which is less invasive than the traditional nasal swab and expedites results so contact tracing and quarantining can be administered rapidly. The University must also follow the guidelines they have already put into place, ensuring that Student Life staff enforce mask guidelines and no-guest policies in dorms, as well as outlining the protocol for repercussions for violations. To ensure the efficacy of this enforcement, the University must provide quality personal protective equipment to University faculty, staff and Student Life employees.

The innumerable flaws in the current fall 2020 reopening plan, along with its execution, have been impacting the Ann Arbor and University community unequally. We acknowledge that there are those who rely on some U-M classes being held in person, but the lack of robust planning to allow for those necessary classes to take place will only serve to weaken the institution even further in the long term. The University has been overworking Student Life staff without providing adequate protection. Leadership has acknowledged but pushed against calls for widespread and alternative testing. Last-minute announcements and lack of adequate protections overall have put students, especially international students, students of color and low-income students, at risk since the partial closure of the University in March. 

The University has failed to come up with a response sufficient for the scope of the problem in some of the most basic ways, particularly where housing is concerned. Not only are dorms operating at 70 percent capacity right now despite the percent of strictly online undergraduate classes being 78 percent, but they’re also operating in such a way that they fall under the CDC’s “more risk” category — as do all University spaces, currently. Guidelines like staying six feet apart and not sharing objects are the minimum precautions an institution can take right now. Many comparable universities have done far more to minimize the number of bodies on campus. Less than 10 percent of University of Washington undergraduate classes are in person, compared to our 31 percent; Harvard University and University of Chicago dorms are at 40 percent capacity, compared to our 70 (and everyone gets their own room); Georgetown University is housing 2,000 students, dwarfed by our on-campus freshman count alone; Brown, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and Yale are all alternating based on year which students can be on-campus, rather than welcoming everyone back at once.

While some college students rely on an open campus for food, housing and basic amenities like a stable internet connection, Michigan students are exceedingly unlikely to be in this situation based on their financial demographics. Add to this the fact that the few basic regulations the University has offered are, more often than not, going unenforced, and it becomes clear that the blame cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of students. Yes, we are already on campus, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for the University to make changes and move people out when there’s no need for them to be there — that’s precisely what happened last March. We are calling upon the University to respond to the pandemic with the gravity it deserves and do as much as possible to protect its staff and students, rather than as little as possible. 

As a university with such an immense pool of resources, there is no reason we cannot adapt to our current circumstances, if not lead the way for colleges across the U.S. Michigan is ranked among the best colleges for medical research in the country and even the most innovative in general. COVID-19 related research is being conducted in a multitude of University programs, as it ought to be, but were still behind when it comes to implementing our knowledge into our plan of action. At present, required testing is limited to those who are already exhibiting symptoms or who have had close contact with someone else who has tested positive. The University recently announced a new opt-in surveillance testing program that aims to test 3,000 individuals by the end of September. This program is a step in the right direction, but its effectiveness for a campus community of over 40,000 remains to be seen.

It can be true that asymptomatic testing is less important than other measures, as this guide is quick to state, while also being true that if we have the means, we should do so anyway — and with one of the largest endowments in the U.S., it is hard to argue we don’t have the means. The current contact tracing method similarly falls short, limited to a phone call about proper quarantine to those close to individuals who test positive; much more effective is “retrospective” contact tracing, in which tracers look for the sources of their cases, not just possible resulting cases. At the very least, the University should also be testing proactively rather than relying solely on individuals to voluntarily test themselves. Rochester Institute of Technology’s testing of residence hall wastewater and similar forms of pool testing are simple but effective at monitoring large populations like our student body, and we believe the University should take advantage of them. 

We’ve been told over and over again that it is an unprecedented time and that no one is to blame except the virus. However, the University had the time to plan for this fall and the resources to do far more than that plan entails. We cannot expect such a large, interwoven population of people to make it through a pandemic on bare minimum precautions. If the University insists on having an open campus and in-person classes, it must act to make sure this system is as safe as possible for everyone.