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Michigan colleges make changes to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t move in

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Oakland University's fall semester is still expected to kick off with a week-long welcome in September as new and returning students move into residence halls and head to classes. Homecoming is even planned for a few weeks later.

But the traditional activities of the Rochester Hills-based university with 20,000 students will look different than in years past amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to OU President Ora Pescovitz. 

Mike Zinser disinfects a room in a Oakland University residence hall in preparation for the return of students.

Masks will be required of everyone on campus. Periodic testing will occur. Students will participate in staggered in-person classes that might occur in the evening or on weekends to accommodate social distancing. Residence hall occupancy will be reduced to two people per suite instead of four, and professional cleaners will periodically disinfect students' bathrooms.

Thirty miles south at Wayne State University, the campus might look more different. Two WSU students succumbed to the novel coronavirus and the campus is located in Detroit, the state's epicenter for the virus. Though a final decision hasn't been made, WSU President M. Roy Wilson recently said he didn't know how the campus could open in the fall, though it is preparing for all scenarios.

Meanwhile, Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State University are starting their fall semesters in August so they end by Thanksgiving. Jackson College, a community college, is offering online classes only in fall. But it will be business as usual at Hillsdale College, the private college known for eschewing government funding.

"Well of course we are going to have college," Hillsdale President Larry P. Arnn said in a recent video message to incoming freshmen. 

Michigan colleges and universities are preparing numerous scenarios to educate students in the fall during a time of unpredictability. There's limited testing as well as no vaccine for the coronavirus.

The planning comes as higher education institutions also are grappling with gaping holes in their budgets as a result of a slowing economy. Already, some at universities have lost their jobs.

It also comes as opinion differs as to how colleges should continue in their missions: face-to-face with safety measures or online courses only?

"One of the great things about public higher education in Michigan is that we have 15 distinct universities and each university is in a different location and has different structures and how they approach these issues can differ," Northern Michigan President Fritz Erickson said.

"We are fortunate we are in the shore of Lake Superior, we are small, we are safe, we are tucked away, and it’s not to say what we do is right or better than anybody, it just suits who we are and where they are.”

Pescovitz, a pediatrician who previously served as chief executive of the UM Health System, announced early that Oakland University would have a hybrid opening in the fall. Recently, she said she expects the various safety measures at her university are likely to be seen on many campuses across the country.

Lawanda Kitts vacuums at Oakland University. Michigan colleges and universities are preparing numerous scenarios to educate students in the fall.

"I consider the health and safety of my campus to be my primary responsibility," Pescovtiz said. "It’s even more important than educating the students. I can’t educate them effectively if my campus isn’t safe."

That's why Pescovitz, who has publicly spoken about family members who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19, said she cannot commit to being open 100%, like some universities around the country have committed to in the fall.

"In the optimal state, we would be 100% fully open because kids learn best when they are at a university when fully present," Pescovitz said. "We are going to try to recreate that as best as we can, and balance that with safety."

The university has been planning for months and has based its plans on recommendations from others on how to host a college environment during a pandemic.

High-risk students, faculty and staff will be asked to stay home. Testing for the virus will occur periodically, along with contact tracing when the contagion is detected. A place will be created on campus for those who contract the virus and need to be isolated.

"You can never guarantee 100% safety," the OU president said.

But already she knows there are some things that cannot be done safely because there is no vaccine. For instance, filling the campus arena with spectators for sporting events would be difficult due to social distancing. Another concern is games would draw spectators from outside the community, and some might come with infections.

"I am not saying we won't have any sports, but I am saying we won't have a full arena of spectators," Pescovitz said. "We can be very creative about how we have spectators watch our sports."

Pescovitz, who penned a nationally discussed opinion piece about how students should not take a gap year this year, is concerned about reports showing 40% of students are considering not going to college next year because of the virus.

"Students should go to college because I believe very strongly that having college education is the best thing they can do with their time and energy, and we need college graduates," said Pescovitz, who is the co-chair of Detroit Drives Degrees, an initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

A lot can change

Other uncertainties abound.

There are fears over not just safety in classrooms and living spaces, but social activities that are traditional parts of the college experience.

Stan Yoshinobu, a mathematics professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, wrote a blog post outlining the case for staying virtual in the fall that has since been published by the Chronicle of Higher Education. He outlined 24 reasons, including one where he said going back to campus is akin to attending an all-day concert or sporting event. 

"Sadly, the range of choices we have is between bad and horrific," Yoshinobu wrote. "But people don't like bad, so it is understandable that we want something better. I fully understand that teaching via zoom in our bedrooms with kids at home is not a good situation. But this is the coronavirus era."

Wayne State President Wilson noted last week during a virtual town hall meeting that there is still a lot of time before the fall semester begins.

"We don't have all the answers to that yet," Wilson said. "When you really think about it, that's three months away. I always try to remind people that three months ago, it was a very different situation here."

A lot can change in three months, Wilson said.

"We really want to be guided by the science, guided by the public health realities at that time," he said.

As officials start to look to the 2020-21 fiscal year, expected revenue loss continues to grow from possible reductions in state aid, expected student enrollment drop and revenue loss from sports, arts and other large campus gatherings.

To ease the burden on students, many schools announced a freeze on tuition, including Michigan State, Western Michigan and Oakland universities. 

The deepest cuts made public so far are occurring at Western Michigan, which is laying off 240 of its support staff and predicting possibly more job cuts in the future.

The Kalamazoo-based college is also slashing salaries of executives and asking university officials to cut divisional budgets by 20% as the school faces a $45 million shortfall this fiscal year, and another projected shortfall ranging between $45 million and $85 million in 2020-21. Meanwhile, student enrollment is unclear.

The revenue shortfall translates into 20% of the general fund at WMU, which is the worst-case scenario, President Edward Montgomery said.

Western is taking steps to reduce costs that include a 10% pay cut to executives, frozen and canceled planned construction projects and suspension of all discretionary spending. But that is not enough since compensation accounts for nearly 70% of WMU's expenses.

“We are planning for the worst, hoping for the best,” Montgomery said. 

"... And then there is the big wild card, which is the up to a million people who have lost their jobs," said Montgomery, who is an economist. "How will that impact the behavior of moms and dads and students themselves when they think about how they can afford to go to college in the fall?"

Western is planning a hybrid model similar to the one embraced by Oakland University, including changing cleaning requirements and expanding testing capability.

Montgomery added that despite the coronavirus, this is a time for students to build on the momentum from high school, contemplate career options and go to college.

"If anything, the virus has reinforced the importance of education as a source of stability and long-term career impact," Montgomery said. "It is still absolutely critical investment that will pay off for parents and students."

'Shared sacrifice'

Western is not the only higher education institution grappling with financial woes that is impacting people's livelihoods.

The College for Creative Studies in Detroit announced it's laying off 5% of staff and enacting other cuts amid COVID-19.

Michigan State University announced $50 million to $60 million in losses for just fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, and steps it's taking to address its finances.

MSU President Samuel Stanley recently wrote a letter to employees, announcing a projected a total budget hole of $150 million to $300 million due to an anticipated reduction in state support, student enrollment, sports and arts programs.

Stanley said the university will address its financial woes with a minimum 3% budget reduction to academic and administrative units. He is also proposing campus-wide salary reductions "in a scaled manner" for other employees and reducing the university's retirement plan contributions.

"The options above, if applied across the entire university, represent a shared sacrifice that would address our estimated budget shortfall, estimated at nearly 11% of our general fund expenditures," Stanley wrote.

Noah Streng, a University of Michigan junior, is taking care of himself financially because he lacks family support. But his income from his job as a peer adviser for Michigan Research and Discovery Scholars, a university job, was reduced dramatically as a result of the pandemic.

Streng said he is mostly concerned about the university taking care of students like him who face housing and food insecurity heading into the fall semester. He'd like to see the university use some of its endowment to help students as officials consider myriad scenarios to keep students safe.

“Changing priorities is necessary,” said Streng, 20, of Clarkston.

“They need to change from the university as a corporate model … to a more just, equitable, democratic and transparent institution that ensures students have access to all the things they need, especially right now, to get a good education.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com