Some University of Michigan faculty members said during an Aug. 28 Faculty Senate meeting that the university’s COVID-19 pandemic response plans for the fall semester are inefficient and not transparent enough.
They also called for a shift to all-virtual instruction, saying it would be the best way to keep the campus community safe. U-M’s public health-informed hybrid fall semester, with a mix of in-person and online classes, begins Aug. 31.
“I think, with students just returning to dorms this week, it simply isn’t prudent to increase the risk of transmission by holding in-person classes until we know that the infection is not starting to spread widely in the student population,” said Peter Railton, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy, John Stephenson Perrin Professor and professor of philosophy.
Facts about U-M’s pandemic response
To address issues and opinions expressed at the Aug. 28 Faculty Senate meeting, the university has released the following information highlights regarding plans for U-M’s health-informed hybrid fall semester:
• Nearly 80 percent of U-M’s undergraduate credit hours are being taken remotely, with the rest in small group or hybrid format based on instructor and department decision about the most beneficial to students.
• Density in residence halls has been reduced to 68 percent capacity. Students with all-remote classes, or those with health or other issues that would make them more vulnerable, were encouraged to stay home.
• Face coverings are required on campus property, except for those in their own residence or individual office.
• Safety measures in classrooms include de-densified rooms to allow for social distancing, increased cleaning, restricted entry into some buildings and readily available hand sanitizer.
• Investigation and contact tracing of COVID-19 cases is being conducted under the auspices of the Washtenaw County Health Department, in collaboration with university Environment, Health and Safety, experts from the School of Public Health, and approximately 75 graduate and professional students.
• About 600 quarantine rooms have been set aside for students, if needed.
• President Mark Schlissel, Provost Susan Collins and public health officials have hosted a number of town halls with faculty, staff, students and parents and alumni, and information about the fall plans are online at campusblueprint.umich.edu.
• To ensure individual accountability for students, U-M has enacted a time-limited addendum to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, and implemented a clause to the housing contract for students who live on campus. If students do not live up to the directives related to public health, they could be in violation of these community standards and subject to disciplinary action.
• In response to community concerns, when a police officer participates in the Michigan Ambassadors program, they will be unarmed. Division of Public Safety and Security community outreach officers are assigned to this work based on their keen interest and interpersonal skills in working with students, faculty and staff. They receive extensive training in conflict management, de-escalation strategies and community policing within diverse environments.
No action was taken at the online meeting, which drew more than 500 viewers over Zoom. However, Faculty Senate members, which include all professorial faculty, librarians, full-time research faculty, executive officers and deans, may bring forward motions to be considered for votes at a follow-up meeting planned for Sept. 16.
The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs scheduled the meeting after receiving a petition signed by more than 150 Faculty Senate members who asked for a meeting to “discuss and address grave concerns that have arisen in the context of the University’s plans to re-open the campus this fall.”
Many of the 13 people who spoke expressed concerns about in-person instruction. Other areas of concern included faculty involvement in the fall semester planning, police enforcement of pandemic-related rules, outbreaks at other universities, how the pandemic is impacting people unequally and student behavior.
Railton said faculty members who are doing hybrid teaching should declare that the first few weeks of classes will be entirely remote to reduce the concentration of students on campus and perhaps the risk of infection.
He also said U-M’s COVID-19 testing plans fall short.
“It seems evident that just testing symptomatic individuals and random surveillance testing to learn of the overall infection rate are not adequate to pinpoint outbreaks early enough to intervene and to stop their spread,” he said.
The university has implemented significant testing and is ramping it up, U-M spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said. Pre-arrival testing involved 91 percent of undergraduates living in campus housing. Those who tested positive in advance of coming to Ann Arbor have delayed their arrival for at least 10 days.
Surveillance testing of asymptomatic students, faculty and staff is anticipated to cover approximately 3,000 individuals a week. There were 1,500 tests for students moving into affiliated fraternity and sorority houses. Additionally, the university is exploring plans to increase testing capacity to 3,000 daily. Broekhuizen said.
SACUA member Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information and professor of information, said administrators ignored faculty voices in planning for the semester. He suggested the faculty consider taking a no-confidence vote in the plans or the administration.
Some faculty members said they have shared concerns about the plans with university administrators or asked for more details about them, but haven’t received a sufficient response.
Michael Atzmon, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and materials science and engineering, said students have been seen gathering in large groups and not wearing masks.
“I don’t have the confidence that the university community will be safe,” he said.
Ronald Larson, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and materials science and engineering, said he polled incoming students in his graduate class about which type of instruction they would prefer. He said almost all of them said they preferred in-class instruction, and so he decided to move forward with that.
“I feel the young people that don’t have another health issue are at low risk of death or serious injury from COVID and are responsible to make their own decisions, as am I,” he said.
Some speakers also said having police officers involved with enforcing pandemic-related rules could increase tensions on campus and have a disproportionately negative impact on students of color.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, associate professor of American culture, said she is alarmed by the Michigan Ambassador program, a student-centered health initiative designed to promote COVID-19 safety protocols.
Khabeer said the program is “asking students to surveil other students, and it ultimately will lead to campus police and/or and other police being used to, you know, sort of censure or sanction students who are violating the public health standards.
“And so, as a Black person, as a Black woman, as a Muslim person, I’m concerned about that and policing in general.”
Broekhuizen said the program is designed to provide responsible students as an initial level of peer outreach to prevent the need for law enforcement interactions. In response to community concerns, no armed police officers will be riding or walking with the Michigan Ambassador teams.