U. of Michigan Students Ordered to Stay in Place by Local Health Department!

Leaning on students to contain COVID-19 on campus | Michigan Radio

Dear Commons Community,

Faced with a steep rise in Covid-19 cases, the local county health department has issued an emergency “stay in place” order for all undergraduates at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, effective immediately. 

The decision by the Washtenaw County Health Department — which was supported by university officials — comes after a series of dorm outbreaks that fueled a dramatic increase in cases of the virus on campus.

The surge in infections on the campus contributed to a “critical” situation overall in Ann Arbor, according to local health officials, who noted that university students now represent more than 60 percent of local cases.

Some of that Covid spread is a result of Michigan students partying irresponsibly. But university leaders have also been roundly criticized for failing to take enough precautions when reopening.  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The 14-day health-department order allows students to attend class, but they cannot socialize. The order will not affect the University of Michigan Wolverines’ football schedule.

University officials on Tuesday pledged to provide additional safety options for students and instructors, including moving more undergraduate courses to online instruction for the remainder of the semester.

This latest effort to control Covid at Michigan may or may not work. But in the meantime, frustrations on campus are growing.

Sophie Clark is a University of Michigan freshman who lives in Mary Markley Hall. The mixed-gender dorm houses hundreds of students and has long had a reputation for a lively social scene.

That’s not a good thing during Covid-19. In fact, Clark calls it “terrifying.”

“People have been going to parties every weekend, they’ve been having parties in the dorms,” Clark, 18, said. “Pretty much nothing has been done about it. Students who get caught with other students in their rooms haven’t really faced any punishment.”

Coronavirus cases are soaring at Markley Hall, and that increase is part of a larger surge happening all across campus. Michigan reported more than 900 new Covid-19 cases during the past four weeks.

More than 100 students in Markley have been relocated to isolation or quarantine housing because of either a positive test result or possible exposure to the coronavirus. At all dorms combined, a total of 259 students are isolated or quarantined.

The rising student cases have strained the surrounding Ann Arbor community — at times overwhelming community testing sites.

Critics say the university’s fall reopening has been a disaster.

“We continue, day in and day out, to remind administrators of the issues that we’re seeing on the front lines,” said Soneida Rodriguez, a resident adviser at one of the university’s smaller dorms. “The policies are not working, this is not going well, and we’re not seeing change quickly enough.”

Rick Fitzgerald, a University spokesman, said via email that Michigan is “rapidly following up on documented nonobservance of public health rules. Measures range from educational conversations to housing probation and contract termination.”

The two-week stay-in-place order for all undergraduates comes on the heels of an emergency order directed specifically at Markley Hall residents. Last weekend university administrators joined county health officials in announcing a 14-day quarantine for all residents.

The university ordered students to attend classes online for two weeks, and to “only leave your room when necessary to obtain food, use the bathroom, or in the case of emergency.”

The quarantine order said that a “high proportion of residents” had not participated in mandatory Covid testing, which therefore made more drastic action necessary.

Your metrics of success should not be, How quickly can we get things open? It should be, How quickly can we get this spread of Covid-19 under control?

Were those irresponsible students “scared straight” by the quarantine? Not necessarily.

About 15 minutes after the notice arrived, Clark saw three female students leaving the residence hall. The trio were headed to a party, Clark said. And they were laughing about it.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Clark expressed frustration with her fellow students, but she was also appalled at university leadership.

“It’s negligence,” Clark said of the administration.

“They have the option to enforce housing guidelines,” she continued. “They have the ability to punish students with more than just a slap on the wrist … they have the power to actually promote safety. But they’re just not.”

Fitzgerald, the university spokesman, said Michigan “has been closely monitoring conduct and accountability for reported COVID-19 related violations since the beginning of the semester, with a strategic focus on residence halls. Each reported violation is addressed within 48 hours with assignment of restorative measures along with probation or even contract termination depending on the nature of the violation. In most cases, our students are very responsive to restorative measures as we have had a very low occurrence of repeat offenders.”

Student partying is probably not the only reason for Michigan’s dorm outbreaks. Other possible factors include the university’s decision to reopen student housing at 70 percent capacity — a higher percentage than some other colleges.

The university also failed to aggressively enforce its safety measures for move-in day, such as requiring students to show a negative Covid test result. The Michigan Daily student newspaper also documented multiple instances of students roaming the hallways without masks on, even when housing staff was nearby. A two-person limit on riding the elevator wasn’t enforced either.

“There’s just no follow-through,” one freshman student told the newspaper in August.

Michigan’s fall semester began with resident advisers expressing frustration over unsafe working conditions. The administration was at times dismissive of those concerns.

When resident advisers asked for more Covid testing, for example, Robert Ernst, director of University Health Services, questioned the effectiveness of large-scale testing.

“Having a test doesn’t prevent you from getting Covid,” he told the RAs at an August town hall.

The following month, RAs at Michigan went on strike. They refused to work for nearly two weeks, until a deal was reached that gave them priority status for surveillance testing, while also providing each RA with a box of 50 masks, every 45 days.

But Rodriguez, the resident adviser, said those concessions haven’t fixed an underlying problem: The university appears more concerned with giving students the full “college experience” than with protecting public health, she said.

“They’re trying to justify the tuition price,” she said.

One example cited by Rodriguez: continuing discussions about whether to reopen common areas in the dorms, such as study lounges, workout rooms, and dining halls.

“I don’t think having this mass reopening of common space is the right approach, which is what they want to do,” Rodriguez said. “Your metrics of success should not be, How quickly can we get things open? It should be, How quickly can we get this spread of Covid-19 under control?”

The university said that while it has examined the possible reopening of common spaces, “there is currently no date identified when they are scheduled to reopen.”


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