Opinion: Northern Michigan University had in-person learning despite COVID-19

Steve Mitchell

“I loved being face-to-face this fall. Being able to learn in person was so important!”  This statement by Maisie Zahn, a student at Northern Michigan University, encapsulates what our students wanted this year. In a survey we took in July, 90% of our admitted students said in-person classes were “important” to them for fall 2020. It is something other colleges and universities can do as well.

Those who chose NMU had the real college experience. In addition to living in dorms, apartments or their own homes, they had the opportunity to have in person face-to-face instruction in a safe campus environment with social distancing, masks and lots of Plexiglass to protect professors and students. NMU delivered face-to-face instruction for the entire semester up to the last five days when the state put a pause on in-person classes. Our students had real classes with real people. 

Northern Michigan University delivered face-to-face instruction for the entire semester up to the last five days when the state put a pause on in-person classes, Mitchell writes.

We are going to provide that same real college experience for our students during the winter semester starting in mid-January, and we have a new $1,000 Transfer UP Scholarship for transfer students or students who enrolled for Fall 2020 and did not attend.

How did NMU do it? We had a fully engaged Board of Trustees, a tremendous administration headed by President Fritz Erickson, a world-class faculty that did incredible work and a student body that followed the rules, wore masks and avoided large gatherings. 

In short, we succeeded because everyone did their best.

At the start of the pandemic, I read a Cornell University report describing how easily the coronavirus can be spread on college campuses. As chair of the NMU Board of Trustees, it was my recommendation on April 15th that we test every student and every employee at the start of the fall semesters when they returned to class.  Erickson agreed. With only 100 days, NMU began working on organizing for the start of school in August while we were just 23 days into the lockdown. 

We began to look for testing companies that could test our 7,600 students and 1,000 employees in a short period of time in August. We started our research into what safety precautions and protocols needed to be created and implemented in just four months.

We looked at the calendar and the pandemic and decided to move up the start of the school year so we could end at Thanksgiving. We eliminated a fall break so we could keep students on campus. We established the best dashboard in the state thanks to the efforts of our team and Trustee Jim Haveman. We brought in Col. Dave Adams, an expert in the field, to work with our own COVID-19 task forces to assure our plans were ready by the start of classes.

At the start of school in August, everyone was tested for COVID and we discovered 36 students who would have been spreading the virus all over campus. They went into quarantine in a dorm that was set for demolition. Those sequestered were very thankful for how well they were treated and the excellent food they received. We continued with surveillance testing all semester.

NMU had a strong, comprehensive plan and everyone implemented the plan brilliantly. At the end of the day it would have all fallen apart if the students had not stepped up and socially distanced, worn masks, and avoided big gatherings. 

When classes start of the winter semester in mid-January, we plan once again to test every member of the NMU community. We plan to provide the same broad array of in-person, face-to-face classes, and we are offering special scholarships to transfer students who want to have the real college experience. As an NMU alum, and now as chair of the Board, I could not be prouder of my school. 

Other schools can do what NMU did. If they build a strong plan, test all their students and get them to follow the proper safety protocols, they should be able to make it through a semester face-to-face, too. 

Steve Mitchell is chair of the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees.