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Faculty at Michigan's public universities ask governor to limit in-person classes

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

More than 260 faculty members from Michigan public universities signed an open letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that seeks to mandate more remote classes for the upcoming term during the ongoing pandemic.

They are asking the governor for specific mandates to protect students and faculty, and to prevent further spread of COVID-19, they wrote in the letter released Tuesday.

"We are requesting that you mandate that classes that don’t require face-to-face teaching as part of their pedagogy (as determined by faculty and departments that teach these classes) must meet fully online," the letter states. "We are also requesting that you set requirements for levels of testing, data reporting, contact tracing and quarantining, per epidemiological recommendations."

The letter emphasizes there are decisions that universities need to make in light of the pandemic, including tuition pricing and social distancing.

"It is still not known how many asymptomatic carriers exist for COVID-19, but it is known that asymptomatic carriers do exist," it reads. "Recent evidence suggests transmission from asymptomatic individuals is the primary vector. In light of this, it is vital that college campuses minimize infection possibilities by having as many classes as possible offered online."

The faculty acknowledged there are some classes that need to be face-to-face for safety, training and licensing: "Having classes like Statistics and Introduction to World Cinema online allows nursing and mechanical engineering students to more safely attend their needed in-person classes and labs."

Deana Weibel, a professor of anthropology and religious studies at Grand Valley State University, said the university went online in the spring with a "crash course" for a lot of faculty and training was made available throughout the summer.

"Those of us who signed the letter think online instruction will work well for most classes and should be the default. We understand, however, that certain classes are much better with a face-to-face component, like classes in nursing, classes focusing on physical performance, engineering, etc.," she said.

However, the real concern is how seriously this will be taken by students, Weibel said.

"Most universities and colleges seem to be crossing their fingers and hoping they'll be the exception, but they are trying to hold students to a higher standard than what we see in many older adults, like not wearing masks when necessary, not following health guidelines, meeting in large groups, etc," she said. "What makes these institutions think an 18-year-old can be reasonably expected to do something a 40-year-old cannot?"

As students started to return to campuses the week of Aug. 10, five outbreaks have been reported at schools, including Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant where at least 82 cases of coronavirus have been reported. School officials are threatening to fine or suspend students if they host or attend large gatherings.

Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti on Monday delayed move-in weekend for resident students and set the first three weeks of classes as online only.

Last week, Michigan State University announced it will hold all undergraduate classes online and asked students to stay at home. President Samuel Stanley, an infectious disease specialist, made the decision before students moved back to campus.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University and the University of Notre Dame suspended plans for some classes to be in-person after a soaring caseload of COVID-19 in the days after students returned.

This month, the University of Maryland, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, the University of Virginia, Princeton and a host of other colleges announced plans to hold all or most of their classes online, citing concerns about the coronavirus. The New York Times cited the Chronicle of Higher Education, saying less than a quarter of the nation’s 5,000 colleges are committed to providing instruction primarily or completely in person.

Michigan added 868 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths related to the virus on Monday.

College students begin moving in for the fall semester at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C.  on July 31, 2020.

The new additions bring the state's total number of cases to 97,660 and total number of deaths to 6,397.

The faculty members say they are not motivated by fear for themselves, but what they have seen around the country at other schools. They also left the letter publicly open online for other Michigan professors from public universities to add their names.

"University students don’t always make decisions based on what is safest, and ... cause lasting damage in many and will certainly kill some," the letter states. "All of this is avoidable, but our universities are doing everything they can to proceed as planned. Please use your authority to limit the damage that is barreling toward Michigan."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_