The University of Michigan will test students for the coronavirus, allow highly at-risk faculty to teach remotely, and implement other measures aimed at keeping people safe while preserving a quality education that includes as much in-person instruction as possible.
That was the key message from President Mark Schlissel and Interim Provost Susan Collins July 8 as they outlined plans for the upcoming semester during a Faculty Senate town hall.
Meanwhile, some faculty members are calling for university leaders to share more details about the plans so they can decide whether they would feel safe to teach on campus.
Results of a recent Faculty Senate survey and feedback collected from the town hall indicate faculty members still have many concerns, according to the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.
At the town hall, Schlissel and Collins acknowledged the complexities, uncertainties and challenges related to the pandemic.
“The situation with the pandemic is changing all around the country,” Schlissel said, speaking to more than 600 people who tuned into the virtual town hall. “If things change to the level where we don’t think our interventions can safely deliver … a safe semester for our faculty, staff and students, then we’ll change our plans. We’re not wedded to an approach. We are wedded to the notion that in-person education has significant advantages.
“We think we know the best practices to help protect our community, but we’re going to check on data, what’s going on locally and around the country and the new discoveries about the virus, literally on a daily basis, and continue to follow our values and do the right thing.”
Schlissel said the university will test some students for the virus as they return to campus and then conduct surveillance testing throughout the semester. All students will be given a safety kit that includes U-M branded masks.
He said the university will test those faculty and staff members who exhibit symptoms of the virus, but there are no plans currently to test the entire faculty and staff.
Schlissel also said the university is building a dashboard that will keep the community up-to-date on testing and positivity rates across campus while respecting people’s privacy.
He said that since March 10, there have been 49 positive COVID-19 tests among Ann Arbor campus students, with no known student hospitalizations or deaths related to the illness. He also noted that of 514 student-athlete tests, there were four positive cases. And, there have been no positive cases connected to the university reopening its labs in recent weeks.
However, Schlissel said he does have concerns, including about the health of high-risk faculty and staff. He said he’s also worried about students engaging in risky behaviors off-campus that could foster the spread of the virus.
Collins said decisions about remote teaching for the Ann Arbor campus will happen at the unit level. Faculty members and graduate student instructors who are older than 65 or at high-risk for becoming severely ill from the coronavirus will not be expected to teach in person, she said.
She also said units will work hard to accommodate requests from instructors who self-identify as falling into other categories of risk, such as those who are concerned about the health of a family member at home.
“So we believe that this approach will enable us to accomplish our commitment to offering a high-quality slate of in-person offerings for students who are on campus, as well as a slate for those who are remote, while incorporating instructor preference,” she said.
Five days after the town hall, members of SACUA, the executive arm of U-M’s central faculty governance system, discussed feedback gathered from other faculty members during breakout sessions after Schlissel’s and Collins’ comments at the town hall.
SACUA Vice Chair Annalisa Manera said rather than putting faculty members’ concerns at ease, the town hall exacerbated them.
“We realized that we do not have any details,” she said. “Who is going to be tested? How are they going to do contact tracing? … Even if we police the students in class, what happens after students get out of class and they go back to their dorms, and so on and so on? We have absolutely no details.”
SACUA members also addressed the results of a Faculty Senate survey answered by 875 members. When asked if they would be willing to teach in person in the fall, 30.63 percent of respondents said “yes,” 47.54 percent responded “no” and 21.83 percent answered “other.”
The uncertainty from faculty is due to both a lack of knowledge of how the pandemic will evolve and a lack of information about what safety measures will be put in place, according to an overview of the survey results.
During the town hall, Collins referenced the survey results, saying they showed U-M will be able to “accomplish our commitment to offering a high-quality slate of in-person offerings for students who are on campus, as well as a slate for those who are remote, while incorporating instructor preference.”
On the student side, Collins said, Student Life staff members have been working with student leaders to create a “Wolverine Culture of Care Pledge.” She said the pledge will articulate a shared standard for public health-informed behaviors.
“This is about working together to instill a different set of behaviors and an understanding of why they’re so important,” she said.
The university has previously announced several other measures that it is taking to protect the health of students, faculty and staff, from an adjusted academic calendar to efforts to reduce the density in buildings.
Note: This story has been updated from its original version to reflect comments from SACUA, and information from the Faculty Senate survey.