As Michigan colleges hurtle into arguably the most unpredictable and frightening semester in recent history, each administration is toiling at forming the safest (yet affordable) procedures for monitoring COVID-19. With plans seeming to shift with each week, encompassing strategies that try to grasp at both safety from sickness and students’ mental and social sanity, each college has shaped creative plans unique to their campus.
Hope College has enacted anti-virus procedures, including the requirement of face coverings when indoors, restrictions on the size of gatherings, the encouragement of students to clean surfaces before classes, virtual symptom check-ins, contact tracing, isolation housing, COVID-19 starter kits and pre-arrival testing. With six positive tests the week of September 7-13 (1.77% percent of tested student population), Hope has seemed to contain the virus, although, as expected, not totally prevented the presence of it, managing positive cases through contact tracing and isolation. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, the state of Michigan faces 1,638 college-campus cases at 32 different schools.
Many schools, including University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University, are similarly having students fill out daily symptom check-in forms. All colleges are enforcing rules in accordance with Michigan’s executive orders, such as mandatory mask-wearing and socially distanced classrooms and computer labs. Most colleges are also mixing their classroom education with in-person, online and hybrid classes. Travel has been limited, with GVSU canceling fall break and transferring most post-Thanksgiving classes online, and Western Michigan University restricting all non-essential travel. GVSU has also implemented “enhanced air handling and water testing procedures, including increased ventilation, outside air intake, inspection, maintenance and cleaning of systems, and increased replacement of air filters,” according to their online “Lakers Together” plan. The University of Michigan’s method relies heavily on their daily screening form, barring students from entering campus if they haven’t filled it out, with people guarding doors. U of M also pays students called “Michigan Ambassadors,” who “are supposed to scour the neighborhoods and see if there are any big gatherings, and then report them to the university,” as described by an anonymous student.
Testing proves to be the main difference between the major Michigan colleges’ responses. Western Michigan University offers tests to all students at any time, regardless of symptoms. GVSU mandates regular testing on high-risk groups, such as student athletes, resident assistants and critical personnel. They also periodically test students randomly to identify any “hot spots” on campus. The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has limited testing, only allowing students who prove to be symptomatic or who meet specific criteria to be tested, with subsequent contact tracing following positive tests. So far, GVSU has seen 212 official positive cases, U of M 244 and Western Michigan University 125.
Despite any efforts by these colleges to curb COVID-related anxiety, a large number of students still feel uncertain about their college’s procedures. After GVSU’s plan was posted in July, a Pulse student survey revealed that only 56 percent of student respondents “said they feel very comfortable or comfortable with returning to campus in the fall.” Moreover, the U of M student interviewed by The Anchor reports that while masks have made them feel the most safe, they have hardly seen the “Michigan Ambassadors” and are therefore unsure about their effectiveness. They also report, “I can say that there are definitely parties and stuff going on…maybe they’re a little smaller than normal, but I’m almost positive that they’re larger than what’s allowed. I imagine there are consequences if you’re caught at a party, but I haven’t heard of anyone getting any big punishment.” The student also expressed frustration on the lack of testing, reporting that “there is no procedure that they informed us about to get tested. It’s just frustrating to hear about universities [such as the University of Illinois] that are testing all their students two times a week when there is so little testing going on here.” Finally, they add that “there are also a bunch of graduate students and GSIs striking on campus right now because they don’t approve of the way that the administration is handling the pandemic.”
While no college is handling the bizarre challenges of the fall semester perfectly, it’s important for students to stay aware of responses to the pandemic and learn from others about what works. COVID-19 has clearly taught cooperation, flexibility and hope, and by understanding the many different creative reactions to this era, students can multiply their growth in their college years.