UM provost defends decision to hold in-person classes as some instructors resist

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan's provost on Wednesday defended the university's decision to hold in-person classes in a letter to staff that said the choice "was not made lightly."

The letter by Susan Collins, the UM's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, came after more than 1,000 instructors at the university signed a letter reviewed early this week by The Detroit News saying they planned to hold classes virtually for at least two weeks, or support those who do, to protect their safety and that of their students.

The effort is in defiance of the university's plans, and it comes amid rapidly rising COVID-19 caseloads as the omicron variant, believed to spread more easily even among vaccinated people, continues to make its way through communities.

Susan Collins is the University of Michigan's permanent provost.

Four of the state's other universities and a few school districts across the state have gone remote for at least a few days to help try to both mitigate the spread of the virus among both students and staff. Some plan to be remote for weeks.

Collins' letter in response, dated Wednesday, said that administrators and the Washtenaw County Health Department worked together to make the plan for students to return in person. She said they all shared a goal to "continue to provide the best possible educational experiences for our students as safely as we can and largely in person."

Mitigation efforts, including the requirement that students and staff get booster shots against the virus, have helped indicate that classrooms are safe both for students and the people teaching them, Collins' letter said. In-person classes are "valuable" for students, she writes, both for mental health and for the quality of learning.

"Going remote for two weeks would be arbitrary," the letter continues. "It is unclear what will be better two weeks from now, given that COVID-19 continues to evolve and is becoming endemic. Our decision-making is guided by science and advice from our experts; our recent decisions hinge on a high vaccination rate, effective masking requirement, sufficient testing capacity and our ability to require and provide boosters in our community."

The university's dashboard shows that 98% of students and 93% of all employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. That, combined with proper masking practices, helps to limit spread, the letter said, noting that data from the fall showed "low (if any) transmission" in classrooms.

In an attached video, Dr. Preeti Malani, the university's chief health officer, notes that it is unvaccinated people who are getting sickest. 

"We are not powerless," Malani said. "The basics work and allow us to get back to all the important things we need to do as a university, in the research lab, classrooms and other learning environments."

She also said that the next few weeks will likely be "bumpy," with a "large number of positives" and some people having a hard time getting to class or to work. 

"It will be disruptive, but together we'll get through this," Malani said at the video's close.

Collins also noted that the university is actively monitoring metrics and will "adjust mitigation strategies proactively."

In the meantime, the university expects educators who are not themselves sick or significantly exposed to COVID-19 to teach in-person, the letter says.

"We expect our faculty to deliver their courses using the planned and promised modality," Collins wrote. "Our Regents, campus leaders, students and their families see in-person education as a hallmark of our university. Our students choose courses and develop their academic schedules with this expectation. Wherever possible, we have a commitment to fulfill our promises to them to the greatest extent possible."

The university has not indicated what, if any, penalties faculty would face for teaching remotely.

Like Malani, Collins closed her message by noting "the coming weeks will be difficult."

"We ask every member of our community to do what each of us can to advance our shared mission," she wrote.