After a year-and-a-half of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, students, faculty and staff have returned to the University of Michigan awash in hope for a more normal school year.

With vaccine and mask mandates in place, most classes will be taught in person and research activity continues to ramp up to near pre-pandemic levels.

Faculty members interviewed for this story say they’re looking forward to interacting with students in classrooms again instead of over laptop screens. Some plan to incorporate lessons they learned over the past year into their teaching, while also acknowledging the uncertainties that still exist as the pandemic continues.   

“I’m definitely happy to be back face-to-face” in the classroom with students, said David Thacher, associate professor of public policy and urban planning. “I’m nervous about the potential for disruptions, or for a lot of people to be absent because of (COVID-19) symptoms, or for there to be county orders to shut down.

“I’m also happy that the university is mandating masks and vaccines. I think with vaccines and masks in classrooms, we can be safe.”

After the pandemic forced most classes to move to a virtual format, Thacher started prerecording lectures for his Values and Ethics in Public Policy course in a studio at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He leaned on Canvas discussion groups as a way to foster student engagement in a virtual environment.

While preparing for this fall, Thacher designed the course to be resilient to possible pandemic-related disruptions. For instance, he’s planning to hold all discussions in person but will continue recording his lectures in advance so they can be watched anytime, something that proved to be popular with his students.

“We read some pretty complicated readings for that class, so when they’re finding themselves lost in the readings, they can go back to the lecture and vice versa,” he said.

Melanie Manos, the Janie Paul Collegiate Lecturer at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, said she is anxious about COVID-19 variants because she’s a caregiver for her elderly mother. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)
Melanie Manos, the Janie Paul Collegiate Lecturer at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, said she is anxious about COVID-19 variants because she’s a caregiver for her elderly mother. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

At the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, Melanie Manos said she is anxious about COVID-19 variants because she’s a caregiver for her elderly mother. The Janie Paul Collegiate Lecturer said she’s also concerned about her colleagues with school-age children because there appears to be no contingency plan for them to teach virtually should local elementary schools shut down.

At the same time, Manos said she is looking forward to the in-person semester.

“I’m excited to see the students. I get a lot of energy working with them,” she said.

One course Manos teaches involved students developing art projects and traveling to a Detroit elementary school to work on the projects with children. When the pandemic ended those trips, Manos and her students focused on finding a way to make sure children who were learning remotely still had access to art education.

So they created Art Connects Kids, a website packed with ideas for art projects that can be made at home using everyday materials.

The website led to a new partnership with the Ludington Area Center for the Arts. Once a week beginning in late September, the center will host weekly art workshops for children that Manos’ students will lead virtually over Zoom. The students will introduce the projects, give demonstrations and help the children one-on-one in breakout sessions.

“It’s a nice silver lining to the pandemic,” Manos said. 

According to the Provost’s Office, 91 percent of undergraduate classes will be in-person this fall, while 6 percent will be a blend of some in-person and some remote instruction. Three percent will be fully online.

Manos and Thacher said they wonder what it will be like to teach while masked. Thacher said he has ordered N95 masks and masks with clear panels so students will be able to see his mouth when he talks.

“Sometimes, you feel like you want to run outside and get a breath of fresh air” after wearing a mask for a long time, Manos said.

In LSA, Ramaswami Mahalingam, professor of psychology and Barger Leadership Institute Professor, teaches a class that involves using meditation, art, poetry and other modalities to practice mindfulness. He also leads a mindfulness leadership program as director of the Barger Leadership Institute.

Like Manos and Thacher, Mahalingam is excited about being back in the classroom. He said he has missed the social component of in-person learning and instruction.

Mahalingam found it challenging to give students feedback on their meditative practices while teaching virtually. As a result, he introduced a more structured mindfulness journaling program that allowed him to get a better sense of where students were struggling in their meditation and how they were coping with the pandemic.

Mahalingam teaches about a concept called “negative capability,” or the idea of dealing with uncomfortable or uncertain situations or feelings with an open mind. He referenced negative capability when saying he doesn’t feel apprehensive about the school year despite the pandemic.

“I have to practice what I preach,” he said.

Steven Gay, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine and interim associate dean for medical student education in the Medical School, said faculty and staff have been working hard to make the virtual component of students’ education more robust and vibrant. 

Steven Gay, associate professor of medicine and interim associate dean for medical student education in the Medical School, said faculty and staff have been working hard to make the virtual component of students’ education more robust and vibrant. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Medicine)

Gay said the school has tried to develop the best course content possible while also acknowledging the need to be flexible.

“There are a million emotions that go through my head every day,” he said about the upcoming semester. “I am excited. I am anxious.

 “This faculty, this staff, these students deserve the best opportunity to do what they have dreamed of doing and what they love doing in a way that allows them to feel fulfilled. We realize that the complexities of the pandemic, and how it changes seemingly day-to-day, challenges that. It makes you feel different emotions moment-to-moment.”

Gay continued: “I think what we are trying to do is watch out for each other, and try to put each other in the safest positions possible, and try to look out for our own wellness and the wellness of others. I think that we’re all struggling, as each and every person in our society struggles every day, to find that normalcy, to find that positivity, to continue to hope and think for the best.

“Things can be difficult when you can’t see the end point, when you don’t know when it will stop. But all we can do is live day-to-day and moment-to-moment, and try to do the very best we can to do what we love.”

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