Michigan State University moves all fall classes online

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University will conduct classes online only for undergraduates amid the COVID-19 pandemic, President Samuel Stanley announced Tuesday, two weeks before fall classes are to start.

Students who are in graduate programs —  or participate in athletics — are exempt. 

"Given the current status of the virus in our country — particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they re-populate their campus communities — it has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus," Stanley wrote in an online and emailed letter.   

Michigan State University is so short staffed in its dining halls that it is asking its professors to volunteer and help, especially during the evenings and on weekends.

"So, effective immediately, we are asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely. While a vast majority of our classes already were offered in remote formats, we will work the next two weeks to transition those that were in-person or hybrid to remote formats."

A statement from MSU Athletics said the announcement would not apply to athletes.

"Michigan State student-athletes who are engaged in practices or workouts can return to (or stay on) campus this fall," according to the statement. "Spartan athletics will continue to follow medical advice and local guidelines regarding the most current safety protocols and procedures for all team activities."

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said there are several reasons why athletes will be able to stay on campus.

"Many of our athletes are from out-of-state and are already living here," Guerrant said. "They are not required to live on campus, but if they want to stay and feel this is safe for them, they are allowed. While fall sports are not competing, many of the programs are still permitted to train and condition. Winter sports will start in November, at least until the Big Ten makes a decision about winter sports."  

In his letter, Stanley said there are exceptions for other students, including those in the "colleges of Law, Human Medicine, Nursing, Osteopathic Medicine and Veterinary Medicine as well as all graduate programs."

"In addition, our research initiatives, which are done in the very safest possible conditions, will continue," wrote Stanley, a physician. "We will also work with our international students on their student visa status and those needing labs, studios and performance-based classes that are required for graduation."    

The announcement is the first for a public university in Michigan, according to Dan Hurley, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. He noted there is a wide spectrum of how public universities are offering classes.

"I don’t expect that this (announcement) is going to be a repeat of mid-March where all 15 schools converted to online instruction," said Hurley, adding the state's universities are monitoring local COVID-19 cases and are ready to pivot if necessary.

Earlier this month, the University of Michigan announced students planning to return for the fall semester must commit themselves to 14 days of "enhanced social distance at home" before returning to the Ann Arbor campus to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Those living in the residence halls and apartments will also have to take and pass a COVID-19 test.

Michigan's overall case tally reached 93,662 and the death count hit 6,340 Tuesday.

MSU's announcement comes about a week before students were to begin moving into the dorms, and two weeks after Stanley encouraged students to stay at home for the fall semester, if possible, as COVID-19 cases continue to spread.

Fenton resident Jen Koester got the news of the move to online-only classes as she was going out to buy items for the dorm room of her daughter, Ellie, who will be an MSU freshman.

"I am sad for her," Koester said. "There have been a lot of obstacles thrown at her all year: Losing her senior year, all the last things, and now losing all the first things at college."

She said she recognized MSU officials put a lot of thought into the decision.

"It’s a huge responsibility, and it is a difficult one," Koester said. "I'm trying to respect it and know they are making the best decisions for my kids."

At the same time, she said it was difficult because her daughter has worked hard to get to this point and decided to live on campus in spite of how the pandemic would change the culture. 

"It’s just heartbreaking she doesn’t get to have that experience," Koester said. "I know there are so many worse experiences happening in the world. But this is her world."

In a statement, MSU's student government also said it understood why the move had to be made.

"As fellow Spartans, we understand this means a further disruption to an already disruptive few months," according the statement, posted on Twitter by the Associated Students of MSU. "Today's announcement saddens us, but keeping our community safe is the highest priority. We admire the humility and leadership that it takes to learn from others, and quickly pivot for the sake of our safety."

Stanley also encouraged students living off-campus to consider staying home, and MSU employees to work remotely.  

"This transition may not be easy for some, and we will make sure students have access to needed support areas such as mental health, information technology, student services and financial aid," Stanley wrote. "The virus has impacted all of us in some way, although some groups have been impacted more than others. I urge everyone to continue showing their compassion and support for one another as we collectively get through this time."

The MSU president's announcement came on the same day that the  University of Notre Dame suspended in-person classes for two weeks after the number of COVID-19 infections spiked since students returned to classrooms Aug. 10.

Students, mainly seniors living off-campus, have steadily tested positive for the virus, according to a statement from Notre Dame. As of Tuesday, 147 people have tested positive among the 927 tested since Aug. 3. 

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill also announced Monday that effective Wednesday, "all undergraduate in-person instruction will shift to remote learning" in response to a surge of cases there. 

Stanley said it was a hard but necessary choice for MSU to follow suit.

"This was an extraordinarily difficult decision, but the safety of our campus community must be our paramount concern," he wrote. "Please know that we are making choices based on reliable public health data, updates from local and state officials and our understanding of the science and research available to us on the novel coronavirus."