Wayne State announces mixed plan for fall return of classes

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

As Wayne State University announced Wednesday that it will be open for fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President M. Roy Wilson said projected enrollment is up compared to last year. 

In a telephone interview with The Detroit News, Wilson said the number of students who have been admitted, paid their deposits and say they are coming to WSU the fall is up nearly 6% over last year at this time.

Asked if he thought the increase was because students may want to stay closer to home during the pandemic, Wilson said higher education is one of the most viable options right now.

"There was a lot of speculation that students may take a gap year but the truth of the matter is going to college right now is the best option," Wilson said. "You can’t travel. There are very few internships available. The job market is not great. Going to school is the best option and I think students realize that."

Earlier, in a letter emailed to students, Wilson detailed the plans for the coming term, saying that 46% of classes will be remote or online, while 20% of courses will take place traditionally on campus.  About 2% will be a hybrid combination of online and in-person. As many as 32% of classes may be individually arranged.

Wilson said the university is preparing to adjust if necessary since Michigan is doing better with the virus than most states, though it is trending in the wrong direction right now.

The state health department confirmed 71,197 cases of COVID-19 and 6,085 deaths through Wednesday, including 891 new cases — the highest single-day total in two months.

Asked if online classes will cost less than traditional courses, he said they would not.

"Online instruction is just as time-consuming and takes as just much skill, if not more skill, than person-to-person instruction," Wilson said. "It's still the same world-class professors teaching. Students understand that."

Campus housing has remained open during the pandemic and will be open for the fall semester. Campus dining and retail options will be offered but modified to mitigate the spread of the virus.

"Campus life and learning will look different than they did in February, and we have new guidelines and procedures in place … to accommodate physical distancing and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus," said Wilson. "Although things have changed, we remain firmly committed to our academic mission."

Wilson said he will hold a town hall meeting from 3-4 p.m. Thursday in which students may pose questions and comments to the restart committee and him.

He also highlighted that the WSU Board of Governors approved a tuition freeze last month "to allow our students to focus on their studies without added financial stress."

"The university will also continue to develop new and innovative ways to make an education affordable for everyone," Wilson said. Tuition for in-state students is $11,700 a year.

WSU's announcement has been planned for weeks. But it comes the day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended her state of emergency declaration for Michigan by almost four more weeks, through Aug. 11, because COVID-19 is "still a very real threat in our state."

Wilson said WSU will make efforts to keep students safe. Among them are a week-long move-in period in August before classes begin. Face coverings will be required in public spaces, along with six-feet social distancing. Students are also encouraged to regularly wash their hands and use sanitizer that has been installed in every building. They are also encouraged to stay home if they are sick.

"All residents will be tested for coronavirus infection as part of the move-in process and will be periodically retested over the academic year," Wilson wrote. "Information regarding testing will be provided closer to move-in day."

He noted that the university is working with the NCAA on plans for competitive sports amid the virus.

For now, the Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center will remain closed until Whitmer allows fitness facilities to reopen, Wilson added.

"I know this is a lot, but hopefully it demonstrates the concern we have for your safety, and our excitement to start the fall semester," he wrote. "The pandemic has changed our world, at least for now, but it hasn’t changed our spirit. We remain Warrior Strong, and can’t wait to welcome you to campus — physically or virtually — for the fall 2020 semester."

Charles Parrish, president of the university faculty union, said he feels good about Wayne State's plan to reopen.

"We’ll do it better probably than most universities," Parrish said. "They have listened to our side, and it’s not been unreasonable."

Wayne State is the last of the state's big three public universities to announce how it intends to educate students when college begins in the fall. But it made the announcement mindfully, Wilson said, with numerous committees using data and the latest available information on the virus.

Michigan State announced in May that it would include in-person and online components when the fall semester begins Sept. 2. In-person instruction will end Nov. 25, before Thanksgiving, with the remainder of the semester conducted virtually. There will not be a fall break.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan announced in June that it will offer a mix of in-person and digital learning when the 2020-21 academic year starts Aug. 31.

Other public universities in the state have made announcements that mostly include a hybrid model, according to the Michigan Association of State Universities.