The University of Michigan is working hand-in-hand with leading public health experts to mitigate COVID-19 risks in preparation for an in-person fall semester, while also developing contingency plans for high-quality remote learning. 

That was the message delivered to incoming students and their families May 27 during an online Zoom chat session with President Mark Schlissel, Simone Himbeault Taylor, interim vice president for student life, and Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management.

Schlissel reiterated that he is optimistic the university will be well-positioned to provide a “public health-informed” fall semester that brings students back to campus and blends in-person and remote learning. He added that the university would have a much clearer understanding of what the fall semester will look like by the end of June.

“None of us chose to be living in this COVID environment,” Schlissel said. “Our challenge is to use all of our talents and our open-mindedness and our entrepreneurial spirit to make the very best of these circumstances, to allow as much of normal life as is possible to move forward.”

Full video of chat session with students and parents.

The 45-minute discussion was designed to answer pressing questions from incoming first-year and transfer students, as well as their parents. Ishop said during the chat that hundreds of questions had been submitted, with topics ranging from broader questions about how to best succeed at the university to specific COVID-19 concerns about course format and housing.

Earlier this spring, the Office of the Provost convened seven faculty and staff committees all charged with recommending how the university will operate in the fall. The groups are addressing different aspects of academic and campus planning, from instructional planning to the use of academic spaces and libraries.

Schlissel said that a wide variety of ideas have been discussed, including adjusting the academic calendar to end the fall semester earlier and utilizing different formats for larger class sizes.

In regard to campus housing, Taylor said university leaders are looking at a number of tools and approaches to ensure the community is as safe and healthy as possible, from widespread COVID-19 testing, and identifying and setting expectations for social distancing behaviors, to providing personal protective equipment and enhanced cleaning procedures.

“In a COVID environment there will be illness, and we’re preparing for that, as well, with quarantine spaces in order to make sure our students stay safe and get healthy,” she said.

Both Schlissel and Taylor emphasized the importance of everyone in the university community having a shared commitment to follow recommended public health guidelines and decrease risk.

“If everyone is willing to wear a mask and everyone is willing to stay six feet apart, we can do lots of things, and we can do lots of things together,” Schlissel said. “If it turns out we don’t develop a culture where people take this adequately seriously and follow guidance, then we’ll be constrained in the kind of things we’re able to do.”

During the chat, Ishop said that many of the questions touched on college costs and whether tuition would be discounted if the fall semester was delivered remotely.

Schlissel said that while tuition rates will be determined by the Board of Regents when it approves the university’s budget this summer, his challenge as a leader is to figure out how to deliver a “high-value academic curriculum that will be at the Michigan standard” regardless of what the semester looks like.

“The commitment is to provide the best education possible under whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, and to have students leave the university with the full value of a Michigan education — of a Michigan diploma — which will open doors for them throughout their entire lives and careers,” he said.