Michigan State tells students: Stay home for fall if you can

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Less than a month before classes are set to begin at Michigan State University, President Samuel Stanley is encouraging students to stay at home for fall semester if they can as COVID-19 cases continue to spread.

"If you can live safely and study successfully at home, we encourage you to consider that option for the fall semester," Stanley wrote in an email sent to students Monday. "The vast majority of first-year students this fall will have course schedules that are completely online. Living away from campus may be the best choice for you and your family, particularly if you have family members at higher health risk." 

The email, which outlines numerous safety measures that MSU has taken to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, comes as colleges are ramping for students to come back to campus in upcoming weeks. MSU undergraduate classes resume Sept. 2, though some graduate students, such as those in the law school, begin as soon as Aug. 17. 

Many universities have announced measures they are taking to keep students safe while learning as the pandemic continues.

The University of Michigan told students Monday that those planning to return for the fall semester must commit themselves for 14 days of "enhanced social distance at home" before arriving on the Ann Arbor campus.

But MSU, the state's largest university, is the only public higher education institution in Michigan to suggest that students might want to stay home instead of coming to campus.

"With adequate information, we believe you and your family can make informed choices that are in your best interest under these very difficult circumstances," Stanley wrote. "The location, duration and intensity of COVID-19 outbreaks remind us that this disease continues to have an impact across the United States and the world, and further changes in transmission patterns could impact what MSU can offer."

Giovanna Xhomaqi, who is planning to attend MSU as a freshman, read Stanley's email and expects some students might stay home and take classes remotely as a way of saving money on room and board and avoiding possibly coming in contact with the virus, which has no cure or vaccine.

But she still plans to live on campus in Holmes Hall with a roommate and take five classes, all of which will be online except one, a hybrid chemistry class. Though she knows the campus will be different, she thinks she will be more focused on her studies living there and expects to spend time in the library and in socially distanced study groups.

"I want to try to get the college experience as much as possible," said Xhomaqi, an 18-year-old Troy resident. "College is about meeting new people, having new experiences. We should all get the chance to do that, and I think everyone should try to get the normal college experience."

Higher education officials have been preparing for a return to classes since the virus led colleges and universities to close their campuses in March when COVID-19 began spreading in Michigan. 

Colleges assembled committees to examine the issues affected by the pandemic and most announced they planned to be open for fall with a combination of online, hybrid and in-person classes and various safety measures. But most couched their announcements by saying they would be guided by science and the virus' spread as opening dates got closer.

Stanley — a medical doctor and researcher whose work has focused on emerging infectious diseases — was leading MSU when it became the first public university in March to announce a shift to online learning.

Under MSU's fall reopening plans, announced in late May, classes will include in-person and online components. In-person instruction will end Nov. 25, before Thanksgiving, with the remainder of the semester conducted virtually. 

But MSU is not compelling faculty to teach in person, Stanley said in an email two weeks ago. He also said then that only 26% of classes for undergraduates will be held in person, while 17% will be hybrid and 57% online. 

On Monday, Stanley said the university has adjusted its policies, including issuing a one-time waiver of the requirement for freshmen to live on campus. 

"For anyone with a residence hall contract, you may be released from it by simply applying in your My Housing Account by 11:59 p.m., Aug. 5," the MSU president wrote. "We would like to know your intentions so we can plan, but the short answer is that we are not compelling any student to live in a residence hall on campus."

Students can still live on campus if they choose to do so, Stanley wrote.

"You should make your choice based on what is the safest and best place for you to live and learn," he wrote. "We know many students consider MSU their home and don’t have another appropriate living space."

Many international students cannot, or would rather not, return to their homes right now, Stanley said. The university is also aware some students live where technology, disease prevalence, personal support or physical surroundings are not conducive to remote learning.

"MSU will continue to accommodate all students who need a safe place to live," Stanley wrote. "In normal circumstances, living on campus is part of a very rich educational experience. We know that meeting people from other places and backgrounds is a fundamental and important part of college life, but these are not normal circumstances.

"In fact, many of the usual campus experiences are being completely rethought and will be offered in remote-access formats. The choice to live on campus should be based on safety and success."

 MSU's campus will be different this fall.

The university has updated its dining hall layouts and adjusted dorm rooms and study spaces to accommodate physical distancing. It has reduced seating and capacity in classrooms and added technology to help with instruction.

Students will be required to wear face coverings, inside and outside buildings. Overnight guests will not be allowed in residence halls. Study groups will be virtual, or in groups where social distancing can occur with members 6 feet apart. Intramural sports are not expected to be held, and indoor exercise facilities are not expected to be available.

"The health and safety of our entire campus community continues to drive our decisions and actions," Stanley wrote. "The COVID-19 pandemic presents significant and unpredictable health risks. COVID-19 is extremely contagious and can be spread by people who do not know they have the virus. There is no guarantee that persons on campus will not become infected by COVID-19."

For those who are planning to still come to campus, Stanley recommended they should increase their social distancing in the two weeks before arriving on campus by wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from people, staying at home and avoiding large gatherings.

"For students arriving from hot spot locations as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Ingham County Health Department, we recommend a quarantine period after campus arrival," Stanley wrote.

He also said any student showing symptoms of COVID-19 will be able to get tested through MSU’s Olin Health Center and other campus sites.

If someone in the MSU community tests positive for COVID-19, they will be asked to isolate themselves and avoid others. Anyone who they have come in contact with will be asked to quarantine for up to two weeks.

At UM, the quarantine guidelines apply to all students and include things such as not going to work or social gatherings, and taking their temperature twice a day and monitoring for fever. They were emailed to students and also posted on UM's Student Life website.

In addition, those living in UM's residence halls and apartments will also have to take and pass a COVID-19 test.

"It is an important part of our strategy to minimize risk and keep COVID-19 out of our community," said the guidelines, outlined by Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, and Dr. Robert Ernst, executive director of the University Health Service.

UM plans a mix of in-person and remote classes when students return for classes starting Aug. 31.

Stanley said despite conducting most classes remotely, MSU would not reduce its tuition.

"Regardless of the format of instruction, MSU is delivering courses taught by highly qualified and world-class faculty, tutoring services, faculty office hours and access, academic advising and access to our libraries," Stanley wrote. "The value of an MSU degree is significant and the modality of instruction does not reduce that value."

He added MSU has incurred costs during the pandemic related to professional development, technology and hardware needs of students and faculty.

"Our faculty members understand the need to prepare students for life and careers beyond MSU, and we have invested heavily in ensuring we can meet those expectations," Stanley said.

The new number of cases in Michigan has been trending upward since June, but deaths and hospitalizations linked to the virus have remained relatively low.

As of Monday, the state has recorded 83,386 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6,212 deaths, according to tracking by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, the CDC reported nearly 4.65 million confirmed cases and 154,471 deaths.

Meanwhile, 30 MSU athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 651 tested since the start of June and more than 150 tests have been conducted on staff members both on- and off-campus, with five positive results.

Also, the Ingham County Health Department in June traced at least 85 people who tested positive for the virus to Harper's Restaurant and Brew Pub, near MSU's campus.