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UM largely closes undergrad residence halls for winter semester

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan is urging students who don't need to be on campus to study remotely for winter semester, and will largely clear out undergraduate residence halls.

UM President Mark S. Schlissel announced the changes in a Friday letter to the university community, noting coronavirus cases continue to climb in Michigan. The pandemic "hasn't gone away," he said, and the winter "will bring new and likely greater challenges."

Mark Schlissel

"We know that reducing the number of undergraduates in our residence halls will diminish a treasured part of our students’ college experience in a way that is inconceivable during normal times," he said. "This was a very difficult decision we had to make to support health and safety, and we apologize for the disruption it will cause."

The university's precautions for the winter semester come after UM imposed a two-week stay-at-home order for students following outbreaks prompted by social gatherings and the state set a new record high Thursday in its daily confirmed case count. 

Schlissel said the university will increase asymptomatic testing to detect COVID-19 infections. The testing, he said, will be mandatory for some and easier to access for others. 

To reduce density in residence halls, UM is shifting exclusively to single-room occupancy. The university is asking undergraduates who don’t need to be on campus to remain at their permanent residences for the semester and study remotely, he said.

The university said all UM Housing contracts for undergraduate residents will be canceled for the winter semester.

Undergraduates who need to remain on campus for the winter term can request housing based on certain need-based criteria, such as health, wellness or safety concerns; financial or specific academic needs; status as international students or U-M Housing ResStaff student employees; or other extenuating circumstances, UM said in a news release. 

The University of Michigan will largely empty out the South Quadrangle Residence Hall and other campus housing for the winter semester as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We know that asking students to leave their residence halls in the middle of the year is disappointing and disruptive, and we apologize for that,” said Martino Harmon, vice president for student life. “The community created within a residence hall is an important part of the college experience, but safety has to come first.”

Graduate and professional housing will remain unchanged as there has been very little COVID-19 transmission in those communities. 

The plans were crafted with input from faculty, staff, students and experts. 

"Safety remains an utmost concern throughout our community," Schlissel said. "We will prioritize the health of our students, staff, faculty and the surrounding community."

During the week of Oct. 11, the number of COVID-19 positive cases at UM reached 301, the highest since the university began posting numbers on March 8. The number includes testing done by UM, as well as outside testing.

UM began to report COVID clusters when students returned to campus and began classes on Aug. 31. 

Washtenaw County Health Department's stay-in-place order for UM undergraduates expired Nov. 3, with cases among 18- to 29-year-olds in the county decreasing.

The percentage of the county’s cases associated with UM students dropped from 60% when the order was issued to about 33%, the university said. 

Still, the number of cases in Washtenaw County remains high overall and the weekly test positivity rate has increased to nearly 4 percent, according to county officials.

 “Recent weeks have left no doubt that the virus continues to circulate and have also confirmed that we can minimize its negative impacts by continuing to use face coverings and distance and cooperating fully with all public health guidance," said Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County.

A recent report developed by campus public health experts warned that while patterns of transmission during the winter are unknown for the virus that causes COVID-19, other common coronaviruses generally see upticks during the months of December through March.

Model-based projections suggest likely increases in cases and deaths, as well as persistent high rates of the disease throughout the winter, the university noted. 

Students returning to campus in the winter will encounter a strict, no-tolerance approach to enforcing COVID-19-related policies.

Depending on the violation, penalties will range from automatic probation to university Housing contract termination and removing university recognition for student groups hosting or participating in social gatherings.

The university is expanding counseling and psychological services, with eight more counselors. UM said it's also incorporating mid-week, one-day "well-being breaks" without any scheduled academic activities on Feb. 24 and March 23.

cferretti@detroitnews.com