Albion College to track students, forbid travel off campus

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Thursday was to be a special day in Hayden Bakker’s life.

The Holland Christian High graduate was excited about making one of his last two-hour drives to Albion College and starting his senior year at the private, liberal arts college.

He looked forward to a new apartment on Burns Street, taking new classes and meeting new instructors in his final year pursuing a degree in economics management. He hoped to find a part-time job off campus and maybe interview for post-graduate employment.

Instead, his outlook at Albion, whose school motto is Lux Fiat (“Let there be Light”), has dimmed considerably.

This school year will start with a COVID test on arrival and 72-hour quarantine until results come back negative.

“There’s a few new rules,” said Bakker, who's 22. “Returning, we all expected to wear masks and social distance. That’s pretty normal these days. But at Albion, it’s like we’re about to become prisoners.”

Albion College

That’s because for the entire fall semester — the next 14 weeks — students cannot leave the campus's 4.5-mile perimeter, under penalty of suspension. Nor can they have outside visitors — including family — without prior approval, normally about five days notice, according to a recent email from school officials.

“We also have to agree to sign up for a phone app which tracks our movements,” said Bakker. “They started talking about it in June and I was expecting something that would keep track of my tests and grades. I had no problem with that.

“But I never figured on something keeping track of me wherever I go,” he said. “I suppose the purpose is for contact tracing in the event of any COVID-19 cases. I’m a pretty private person and this makes me uncomfortable.”

His only alternative, Bakker says, would be to "drop out” of school until the new rules are lifted.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “I want to finish my senior year now. I want to get a job. I want to get on with my life. So I will just try and make the best of this.”

While Bakker and 1,500 fellow undergraduates must comply with the “Together Safely” program, the school’s faculty and all members of the campus staff are allowed to freely come and go from the bubble under creation at Albion, located in Calhoun County, which has recorded 755 COVID-19 cases and 42 deaths.

“We have created policy and protocols that allow for the reduction of risk as much as possible, but it is not feasible to have faculty and staff live on campus,” said Albion President Matthew Johnson, who responded Wednesday to emailed questions from The Detroit News.

Johnson said the reopening plan was created by “Albion leadership, in consultation with the Board of Trustees, and guided by a council of medical experts who evaluated the entire 'Together Safely' return to campus plan, including the need for the Aura app."

“The purpose of tracking students is to manage risk, not limit movement,” he said. “Location data will only be accessed if there is a positive test result for the purposes of contact tracing or in the event of an unauthorized departure from campus for the purposes of managing risk of exposure.”

He added: “The vast majority of parents have shared their appreciation and encouragement for our thoughtful and robust planning. There is no perfect solution, and every higher education institution is navigating this in real-time. Our goal is to do what’s best for Albion students, faculty, staff and community members.

“Right now, we believe this is the best possible path forward,” he said. “However, we will be monitoring the results closely and following medical guidance, shifting our approach on an ongoing basis, as needed.”

Johnson said in a summer survey, 90% of the students favored returning to campus, and 92% said they were willing to fully practice new protocols to maintain public health.

“While this requires adoption of new norms, we heard clearly from our students that the vast majority were willing to do what was necessary to be back on campus,” he said. 

Some colleges and universities across U.S. have either switched to online-only classes, as Michigan State University did this week for undergraduates, or offered a hybrid of online and face-to-face learning options.

Bakker foresees many challenges outside the classroom at Albion, including socializing or seeking work while living in the bubble.

“I was looking forward to seeing some buddies I haven’t seen all summer and catching up,” he said. “But we aren’t allowed to have guests in the dorms or apartments. We have to meet outside or in public hallways. I need a part-time job and was looking forward to getting a job making home deliveries from Meijers or Target. But that’s not going to happen because I can’t drive off campus.

“But I still get to pay my $300 parking fee,” he added.

Johnson said the college will consider written requests from students for off-campus employment. Students can also inquire about leaving campus for emergencies and “a wide variety of reasons.”

A staff member will approve such requests using a “case-by-case approach,” he said. Students will be required to meet with staff upon return to ensure safety as they come back to campus, Johnson said.

Bakker said he does not know of anyone who planned to delay their Albion education, which costs about $63,000 a year, including room and board.

“I have friends attending a lot of schools across Michigan — Hope, Adrian, Calvin — and none have anything like this,” he said.

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