Fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Washtenaw County
The University of Michigan has shifted more of its undergraduate classes to fully remote instruction for the remainder of the fall semester while continuing to allow classes that are substantially enhanced by in-person instruction to be taught in person.
The shift came after the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a 14-day stay-in-place order Oct. 20 for undergraduate students amid rising cases of COVID-19 in the community. The order will expire at 7 a.m. Nov. 3, Election Day, but could be extended. The University supports the order.
The county issued the order because the number of COVID-19 cases among U-M students is increasing and represents more than 60 percent of county cases.
“Stay in place orders are intended to limit socializing among students, slow down new cases, and allow for effective case investigation and contact tracing. Most infections are the result of social events and gatherings,” the county’s announcement says.
Exceptions to the order include leaving a residence to attend class, pick up food, medication, and other basic needs, and for medical appointments, voting or volunteering as poll workers, attending religious-practice activities, or obtaining COVID-19 testing.
The order also specifies that undergraduate students can leave their residences for purposes of physical activity outdoors in groups of no more than two if appropriate preventive measures are followed.
U-M leaders and Washtenaw County Health Officer Jimena Loveluck addressed various aspects of a two-week stay-in-place order for undergraduate students. In addition to Loveluck, this video features President Mark Schlissel, Provost Susan M. Collins, Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani, and Robert Ernst, executive director of University Health Service and associate vice president for student life.
Reversing the trend
“The University has been working closely with the health department all along in response to the pandemic, and supports this decision to issue this stay-in-place order,” says Robert Ernst, executive director of University Health Service and associate vice president for student life.
“This action is intended to reduce the strain on our capacities for contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation housing. Many individuals and off-campus residences are cooperating fully, and we hope this additional guidance on limiting social activities reverses the trend of increased cases related to socializing.”
In a letter to the campus community, President Mark S. Schlissel, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan M. Collins, and Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon said the order is an important intervention to reduce the spread of the virus, and it reflects the University’s close partnership with the county.
“We have been coordinating on COVID-19 since before the early days of the crisis. Today’s order is in addition to the enhanced social distancing order for residents of Mary Markley Hall issued last week,” the message says.
Undergraduate courses that are “substantially enhanced by in-person instruction due to the nature of the instruction or space or equipment needs” will continue to be taught in person, according to the letter.
Each school and college will manage the process to enable exceptions for instructors who wish to continue teaching courses in person for instructional reasons, according to the letter. Instructors who will continue to teach in person are expected to notify their students.
Plans for the 2021 winter semester will be announced in early November.
Students have the option to return to permanent home
With this development and “the increased stress we know this kind of measure can add to an already challenging semester,” students also now have the option of returning to their permanent home.
The health department order requires that all students living in “on- or off-campus congregate living settings” follow a University exit protocol to lower the risk of carrying the disease home with them.
The protocol will be announced in the coming days and will include University-provided COVID-19 testing. Students in Michigan Housing who leave early will be offered a prorated refund.
Rise in cases, projected need for COVID-19 housing led to order
At the University, the move to remote instruction comes after a number of COVID-19-related metrics established earlier this year were met.
Most of the COVID-19 cases on campus can be traced back to social gatherings in which people were not wearing appropriate face coverings and exercising social distancing, and that the risk of classroom transmission remains low, the letter states.
“The order is an important intervention to reduce the spread of the virus, and it reflects the University’s close partnership with the county,” the letter says.
“Even though the risk of classroom transmission remains low — and the increasing COVID-19 transmission we are seeing is not due to our classrooms and labs — we are issuing new guidelines for undergraduate course delivery to go into effect tomorrow and continue for the remainder of the semester.”
County order includes exceptions for basic needs and athletics
Washtenaw County had reported a total of 4,229 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Oct. 19, according to the county health department. More than 600 confirmed and probable cases have been reported in the county since Oct. 12, and 61 percent of these are connected to U-M students living on or off campus, according to the health department.
“The situation locally has become critical, and this order is necessary to reverse the current increase in cases,” says Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County. “We must continue to do what we can to minimize the impact on the broader community and to ensure we have the public health capacity to fully investigate cases and prevent additional spread of illness.”
The county order also includes an exemption for intercollegiate athletics, as long as practices and competitions “occur under medical supervision and regular virus tests are conducted by the Big Ten according to its approved protocols,” according to the letter from Schlissel, Collins, and Harmon.
“There has not been documented transmission of COVID-19 among student-athletes in our athletics facilities,” the administrators say. “U-M supports the league’s testing program, and the staff of the Athletic Department is committed to protocols that protect the health of our student-athletes.”
Undergraduates will not be allowed to participate in in-person research and scholarship. However, senior students engaged in in-person research and scholarship for credit as part of a class or a thesis project can work with research leadership in their particular unit to request an exception.
Undergraduates with campus jobs will still be able to go to work with the consent of their supervisors — under public health protocols.
Campus staff will continue their work under the guidelines that have been in place, and most on-campus services, including libraries, will continue as they have during this semester, though with “increased remote modalities,” according to the letter.
(This story is reprinted courtesy of The University Record. Lead image by Michigan Photography.)