Wearing face masks and practicing social distancing is not what comes to mind when many young college students envision their college experience. 

But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 fall semester is going to look and feel very different for everyone.

To help keep the campus and broader community as healthy and safe as possible, the University of Michigan has launched the Wolverine Culture of Care — an initiative aimed to provide education on health-promoting behaviors and promote collective responsibility and positive social norms related to the virus.

Student Life also has launched the Michigan Ambassador program, a student-centered health initiative designed to promote COVID-19 safety protocols.

“As we ramp up to welcome a reduced number of students, faculty and staff back to campus, our goal is to continue to serve our mission to the greatest extent possible, while balancing that with the health and safety of everyone involved,” said President Mark Schlissel.

The Wolverine Culture of Care calls for the entire campus community to commit to:

  • Monitoring themselves for symptoms associated with COVID-19 and carrying out the appropriate testing, isolating and contact tracing efforts.
  • Practicing social distancing.
  • Wearing face coverings.
  • Adhering to size limitations for gatherings.
  • Frequent hand washing.
  • Educating themselves and others with health-positive and fact-based information related to COVID-19.

Before classes begin Aug. 31, all U-M students are required to complete a virtual course about COVID-19 safety. It will provide education about COVID-19 and symptoms, self-monitoring, screening, quarantine and isolation, effective practices for reducing exposure and spread of the virus, enhanced cleaning and hand-hygiene practices, and where students can find assistance and medical care.

To augment accountability on campus, the university has modified a number of existing policies and guidelines, and added new programming that makes clear how students must adjust to the new public health expectations due to COVID-19.

To ensure individual accountability, a time-limited addendum to the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities has been enacted, and a clause to the housing contract for students who live on campus was implemented.

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.

Registered student organizations will be held accountable through the updated Student Organization Advancement & Recognition process, which takes into consideration health and safety laws, orders, ordinances, regulations or health and safety guidance set forth by county and state officials as well as the university.

The Michigan Ambassador program works to promote new public health-informed practices and guidelines put in place by state and county officials, as well as the university.

The program is open to U-M students, faculty, staff and community members who are committed to consistently following the core tenants of the Wolverine Culture of Care. It also includes support from unarmed Division of Public Safety and Security staff.

A series of training modules related to COVID-19 preparing Ambassadors to canvas traditionally high-traffic areas on and off campus have been prepared. Modules include: public health information related to COVID-19, a basic orientation to the Ambassador program, conflict resolution and de-escalation skills, and bystander intervention skills.

If a student or staff person is not wearing a face covering, for example, an ambassador — wearing a clearly identifiable blue T-shirt and branded mask — might approach them and remind them of the face covering policy.  They also will be able to issue reminders about social distancing and size limitations for group gatherings.

All students living off campus also were asked to opt-in to a voluntary address registry, providing the university with their name, address and cell phone contact information.  By signing up for the opt-in registry, students can receive updates from the ambassador program if a concern about their address surfaces before midnight, giving them the opportunity to address the situation without police involvement as the first response.

Being able to call a responsible student as an initial level of peer outreach may prevent the need for law enforcement interactions.

“The success of this program will require a communitywide effort with everyone — particularly students — taking an active role in encouraging others to practice the appropriate safety measures,” said Laura Blake Jones, dean of students.

Currently, ambassador groups walk through the community — on campus and in bordering residential neighborhoods where students live — every day from noon to midnight, and will continue to do so through Aug. 30. The program will resume Sept. 3-6 and then transition to operating on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from Sept. 10 through Nov. 21.

Ambassadors will not directly confront large parties or situations where their personal safety may be at risk.

In addition to the Michigan Ambassador program, the university has created a reporting line for COVID-19 concerns — 734-647-3000 — to be used by the campus community and Ann Arbor residents to report non-emergency compliance issues. Concerns reported the phone line will be addressed by ambassador program staff who will call or text responsible parties.  After hours this number will be answered by the U-M Police Department. 

Issues that cannot be resolved through contact with the ambassadors, or addresses of concern that are reported more than once may be referred to Student Organization Advancement & Recognition, DPSS or AAPD. Both law enforcement agencies have been responsive to students’ efforts at self-governing and responding to requests for voluntary compliance.

“We don’t plan to enforce our way to good behavior,” Schlissel said in a conversation with MLive that also included Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor. “We’re really trying to educate our way to good behavior.”

U-M leaders said in doing this work they are relying on long-standing partnerships with surrounding communities, including business owners and residents, local, county and state elected officials, neighborhood associations, property owners and managers, and law enforcement agencies.

“Throughout the summer, we’ve worked collaboratively with our students to implement best practices for harm reduction and peer-based interventions,” said Jones. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a novel public-health challenge, we are working from an established research-informed framework to create education and prevention activities to reduce harm and moderate the social experience during this critical time.”

Editor’s note: This article has been edited from its original version to reflect changes in the operations of the Michigan Ambassador program.

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