President Mark Schlissel said even though the fall semester will look very different this year, the university’s commitment to high-level education, research and patient care hasn’t wavered amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We have to find a way to exist or coexist as safely as possible with this pandemic as we deliver as much of our mission as we can,” Schlissel said during an Aug. 13 virtual town hall for University of Michigan faculty members.

The town hall covered a variety of topics, from mask-wearing and other safety protocols to plans for virus testing on campus. More than 700 people watched it on Zoom. A similar town hall for university staff took place the previous day.

Joining Schlissel were Susan M. Collins, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs; Martino Harmon, vice president for Student Life; Anne Curzan, dean of LSA; and Preeti Malani, university chief health officer and member of the COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee.  

Schlissel said while about 70 percent of student credit hours will be offered fully online this fall, some courses just cannot be delivered effectively remotely. He said that’s why U-M opted for a hybrid, in-person semester that will feature “a layered set of interventions” aimed at keeping people safe.

Testing was a main topic during the town hall. Curzan, who served as moderator, brought up a letter signed by faculty members and graduate students who expressed concerns that U-M’s policy potentially carries unacceptable risks. Curzan said the letter cited a study that concluded frequent testing is key to containment.

Schlissel said testing is just one component of the university’s pandemic response, and it has to be part of a scheme that includes social distancing, masks, contact tracing and other measures.

Surveillance testing is planned. But Schlissel said U-M simply doesn’t have the capacity to test every student every day or every other day. He said doing so would equal around 300,000 tests per week — far more than the 175,000 tests that are being administered weekly in the entire state of Michigan, which has 10 million residents.

Schlissel also said while testing identifies when someone is sick at a moment in time, it does not prevent disease.

“The testing is a part of a multi-layered approach,” he said. “This notion that a university at the scale of Michigan can test everybody a couple of times a week or every day, right now, that’s science fiction.”

Additionally, Schlissel said other universities that are attempting widespread testing are often using tests not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, resulting in many false positives and false negatives.

Curzan also asked Schlissel about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request that state universities not invite students back to campus. Schlissel said U-M encouraged students and their families to carefully consider whether they wanted to return, but ultimately left the decision up to them. 

“We told them, ‘If you choose to come back, this will not be a normal semester. There are going to be things that you really won’t be allowed to do. There’ll be things that you have to do that you normally don’t have to do,’” Schlissel said.

“We’re not going to allow large groups, and you’ll have to wear masks, and many spaces on campus won’t be open and available to them. So we wanted them to make an informed decision, but then own it.”

Schlissel said students were afforded extra time — until Aug. 15 — to cancel housing contracts. He also said they were given the option of moving on campus in January rather than having to buy a contract in September. Dorms are expected to be at about 75 percent capacity this fall.

Harmon noted that student leaders helped develop the Wolverine Culture of Care, a set of measures students are being asked to follow in order to keep themselves and others safe.

Collins said she worked with deans and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs to develop language that faculty can add to syllabi for in-person courses about the behavior that will be expected in their classrooms.

Malani said students want to be on campus and have been wearing masks.

“Give these students a chance to step up,” she said. “They’re doing the right things; give them guidance. If they’re walking by themselves or running, they don’t need a mask, but we want to set the expectation that if you’re out and about outside your room, you have a mask either with you or on.”

Other aspects of the university’s pandemic response include contact tracing and changes to campus transportation. Collins said bus riders will have to wear masks, and the number of people on buses will be limited. Bus routes have been changed so that no rider will be on a bus more than 15 minutes.

Schlissel said there are reasons to be optimistic that U-M’s precautions are working. He pointed to how the university successfully reactivated its labs several weeks ago following safety guidelines. 

“We average about 7,000 people a day in our research labs,” he said. “As of yesterday, we had four cases amongst the 7,000 people coming every day, and no evidence of spread inside of our buildings, so four community-acquired cases.”

Schlissel said officials will look at a variety of factors, including the number of new cases on campus and the rate of increase in positive cases, in deciding whether U-M needs to scale back its in-person plans.

“We’re committed to continuously modifying our approach, as we actually implement things and learn by implementation,” he said.

Schlissel said the semester will be “weird.”

“I would advise that we not try to map our normal experience and then say, ‘How can we do this with COVID?’ It’s a very different experience. … It’s going to look and feel different, not by choice. It’s what we have to do,” he said.

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