Michigan college campuses cautiously welcome students back amid COVID-19

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Mount Pleasant — Brooke Kleinsorge bid farewell to her northern Michigan home this month as she embarked on her next phase in life: earning a bachelor's degree at Central Michigan University.

But the freshman is beginning her college career amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented time in higher education with courses being offered at colleges across the state either online, in person or a combination of the two. 

This year is different for her and thousands of students across Michigan who are going back to campus: wearing masks, keeping distance, cleaning classroom desks, signing compacts, leaving campus around Thanksgiving and more. It's all part of strategies aimed at keeping the higher education community safe.

Kleinsorge, 18, says she has been following the rules by wearing her mask, staying close to her dorm room with her roommate and playing cards and watching movies. She doesn't think it's wise to go off to parties and said she is frustrated by some of her peers who are attending large gatherings and getting infected with the virus.

"I want to be here as much as the next person does," said Kleinsorge, a Cadillac resident. "If we all don’t do our part, then none of us is going to have the (college) experience."

CMU is among colleges back in session and already confronting students who are flouting the rules. Other colleges have already shifted gears to offer classes only online. 

CMU already is grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak of 38 cases and eight probable cases linked to parties and large gatherings. College administrators are threatening fines, possible suspension of students if they host or attend large gatherings and even a possible shutdown of the campus.

Northern Michigan University suspended in-person classes last week, its first, due to the delay of COVID-19 testing results. Michigan State University announced its undergraduate classes would be online only, and asked students living on campus to stay home. 

NMU tested the entire community when students returned to campus this month and suspended in-person classes until Monday, when they will resume in addition to courses that are online, said Derek Hall, NMU spokesman.

The Upper Peninsula college tested 7,697 of the campus community, of which 34 were identified with the virus, according to the NMU's COVID-19 dashboard. Of those, 24 were students living on campus, nine were students living off campus and three were NMU employees.

Those who were identified with the virus were expected to isolate in NMU's Spalding Hall. Some went home or isolated another way, but 11 students with the virus moved into the hall along with 65 students who did not test positive but came in close contact with someone who did, said Hall. 

Unlike CMU, Hall said those who tested positive were not linked with attending large gatherings. The number of people who tested positive are 0.44% of the campus community, he said. 

"We are just testing everyone," said Hall. "That is part of the process we chose to go forward." 

Freshman Brooke Kleinsorge, 18, gets help from father Scott Kleinsorge moving into Sweeney Hall on the campus of Central Michigan University.

The fall semester will be among the most historic in higher education, as the novel coronavirus created a global pandemic, cut last spring semester short and now is shaping a university culture unlike any other in modern times. 

Students have moved into dorm rooms and begun classes at a few schools, such as CMU, NMU and Lake Superior State University. But students at the majority of the state's public universities begin classes next week.

They are facing concerns about outbreaks, prompting protests — and last-minute changes — as classes get underway.

Coronavirus-related signage throughout the campus of Central Michigan University on Aug. 13, 2020.

In Ann Arbor, police have announced plans with the University of Michigan's campus police to monitor parties and other large gatherings that could spread the virus. This comes as UM faculty and staff protested on campus last week against plans for in-person classes.

But some UM instructors remain optimistic.

Mark Rosentraub, a UM professor of sport management and director of the Center for Sport and Policy at the School of Kinesiology, said he feels confident about teaching and learning. He has made a local park his office and met with students outdoors.

He also is teaching a class of about 38 students in a classroom with 256 seats, a situation that has him joking.

"I worry I will have more difficult time seeing than I will worry about COVID infection,” Rosentraub said.

To the west, some Albion College students are upset they cannot leave campus the entire fall semester or have outside visitors, including family, without prior approval. The private school is tracking students' health through a mobile phone app, like many schools are doing. But the app is also tracking whether or not they stay on campus, which has some students leaving their phones behind when they go off-campus, said Mitchell Seavolt, a rising junior at Albion.

Seavolt said he is not doing that, but has mixed feelings about those who are doing it. 

"I get it, but I am definitely not doing it," said Seavolt. "Regardless of whether we agree with the school rules, we should be following them. But the whole tracked thing is not fair. But I understand the university’s point of view of wanting to keep us safe."

Albion College has identified five positive COVID-19 cases from the 2,500 tests it has completed,  Albion College President Mathew Johnson wrote in an email Saturday to the college community.

"There will likely be more positives over the next two weeks as the incubation period for COVID-19 runs its course and we continue to identify asymptomatic infections that may have begun before students arrived or been passed from student to student in the first few days on campus," Johnson wrote. "Vigilance over the next 28 days is exceptionally important." 

He added that more testing would be done this week and students would be expected to adhere to protocols that include a symptom check twice daily, location services enabled on the app and remaining on campus. 

"If we all do not follow our protocols, we will be forced to move to remote learning," Johnson wrote.

In East Lansing, Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley announced undergraduates classes at the state's largest university would be shifted entirely online. Stanley, a physician who is an infectious disease expert, also told students who planned to live on campus to stay at home. 

His decision came after other schools across the country experienced outbreaks as students returned; those institutions were using the same strategies that MSU had planned to employ.

The move prompted sadness and anger. But some students living off-campus still plan to come back. For some, they cannot get out of their apartment leases.

Others, like Mìké Brown, said they just prefer to go back to the East Lansing area.

"I want to see my friends, despite the circumstances," said Brown, an MSU senior from Chicago who is living in a house with two friends. "I also don’t do my best academic work from home."

Living at home with his parents while taking classes is more difficult, and the public library isn't open, he said.

"At MSU, I would at least be able to find an on-campus building to focus, home in," said Brown, who is studying civil engineering.

The move back to college comes after months of uncertainty about whether the virus would surge before fall classes, or peter out, after it had ravaged communities around the world.

Wayne State University students are mourning the cancellation of the Warrior Band for fall semester due to the virus.

But classes are on schedule to begin Sept. 1, said WSU spokesman Michael Wright. About 87% of classes are either online or remote, Wright said, adding decisions were made after careful thought and consideration.

"We are going to be vigilant and we are ready to change if necessary because safety is a top priority," Wright said. "We are feeling cautiously optimistic in our plans."

How many students show up to campus remains unclear. With many universities opting to deliver the majority of classes online, officials are waiting to see what happens as classes get underway.

A recent national study showed that a third of students planned to return to college campuses and attend in-person classes.

But at Eastern Michigan University, President James Smith said there are far more than a third of students showing up to the Ypsilanti-based school, where dorms open Thursday and classes begin Aug. 31.

Smith said the numbers are fluid and he has never seen so many students waiting until the final days before classes start to either enroll, live on campus or both. 

The university has taken numerous steps, from measuring all of the dorm rooms on campus and setting them up so students are 6 feet apart, to requiring students to undergo daily symptom checks before entering buildings. In addition, students are being required to take a COVID-19 test before arriving on campus.

Smith said they are doing all of this because people want to progress, in spite of the virus.

"All of us yearn for normalcy," he said. "Our students yearn to continue on with their degree attainment. Those are their dreams. We want to present educational opportunities."