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University of Michigan classes to begin Aug. 31; no fall or spring break

The University of Michigan will offer a mix of in-person and digital learning when the 2020-21 academic year starts in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Mark Schlissel made the announcement Monday via video and in an email to the campus community, calling it a "public health informed" return to life on campus in Ann Arbor.

It will include a calendar for the Ann Arbor campus with classes beginning Aug. 31 as previously scheduled, but fall break will be eliminated. The last day of in-person classes for the semester will be Nov. 20. After a nine-day-long Thanksgiving break, classes will resume remotely Nov. 30 and continue until Dec. 8, with finals Dec. 10-18. There will be a later return in January and no winter break.

Residence and dining halls will be open, and the university will stress the importance of safety measures including the wearing of face coverings, practicing social distancing and other measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. 

What will become of the fall sports season — including football — remains an open question. Athletes have returned to campus, but team activities have not yet resumed.

"Because of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, the semester ahead will look and feel different than anything we have seen before," Schlissel wrote. "But the pandemic won’t change our commitment to the members of our community."

Large classes generally will be held remotely, small classes will be held in-person and medium-size classes will be a hybrid of the two, Schlissel wrote. "This and other means can be used to diminish classroom density."

At UM Dearborn, officials will take a hybrid approach with many classes held remotely and in person. It will adhere to a similar calendar as the Ann Arbor campus. UM-Dearborn on Monday became the first college in the state to cancel its fall sports season.

“Throughout the duration of the global pandemic, UM-Dearborn faculty and staff have maintained a commitment to the university’s mission while keeping our community safe and healthy,” said Domenico Grasso, chancellor of the Dearborn campus.

Meanwhile, at UM Flint, the majority of courses will be taught remotely.

"The creation of our plan for fall 2020 was also informed through feedback from faculty, students and staff," wrote UM Flint Chancellor Deba Dutta. "For instance, of current UM-Flint students surveyed by the Office of the Dean of Students, over 70% stated they wanted to attend class remotely."

Alissa Cammarata, a senior studying communications at UM Ann Arbor, said she was surprised officials didn’t give any break during winter semester, and it's not clear which classes will be online or in-person during the fall semester.

"I get it," said Cammarata, 21, of Houston, Texas. "There is still a lot uncertainty of whether there will be a second wave (of the virus) or whether Michigan is going to be completely open. It's a little frustrating but understandable."

But not everyone is supportive of the university's plans.

The Graduate Employees' Organization, representing UM graduate workers, called the decision to return to campus "dangerous" and said graduate workers should work remotely, there should be no cuts or layoffs, and there should be "safety and security for everyone." 

"President Schlissel's announcement that UM will hold in-person classes this fall is dangerous and irresponsible," the group said on its webpage. "With this decision and with many others, UM continues to stonewall GEO's demands for graduate worker safety in the COVID-19 pandemic." 

UM's announcements are the first glimpses into plans to return to campus after higher-education institutions were among the first to respond to the pandemic in March by clearing campuses and pivoting to online classes after COVID-19 infected the first Michigan resident. 

Since then, more than 5,800 people in Michigan are confirmed to have had coronavirus when they died.

UM's announcement comes days before it is expected Thursday to set tuition for the 2020-21 academic.

Students and parents have been waiting for UM to make an announcement after several other public universities shared fall plans.

Oakland University was among the earliest public universities to announce in April it would be open in the fall with a hybrid approach to classes. While OU President Ora Pescovitz said recently it would be optimal to be 100% open because students learn best when they are fully present, she said: "We are going to try to recreate that as best as we can, and balance that with safety."

UM's rival, Michigan State, announced its plans to return last month, and the scenario is similar to UM. Its campus will include in-person and online components, with classes ending Nov. 25 and the remainder of the semester conducted virtually. There won't be a fall break.

Wayne State will have in-person, online and remote instruction in the fall, with the proportion of each to be announced by July 15. 

UM's decisions are guided by public health experts and the UM community, officials said, and it will update plans regularly on its newly launched "Maize and Blueprint" website.

Outside of the classrooms, sports is still a looming question for many fans of the university.

"Michigan athletics is working with our public health experts and consulting with the Big Ten and NCAA on determining whether our student-athletes can safely return to competition this fall," Schlissel wrote, adding "an announcement will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead."

Michigan Stadium draws in 100,000-plus people per football game. But even if football does return, the crowds won't, not like before. UM athletic director Warde Manuel has warned attendance "won't be normal."

More:Attendance at Michigan football games 'won't be normal' this year

"We won't have 110,000 people in Michigan Stadium this year," Manuel told reporters recently. "There are a lot of unknowns right now."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com