Michigan, most Big Ten schools planning for in-person classes, a key variable in fall sports

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Across the Big Ten there seems to be a sense it will be improbable to have football games if students are not on campus, but based on a recently updated survey, the majority of conference schools are planning to have a fall semester with in-person classes.

Warde Manuel said sports would not take place at Michigan without students on campus.

This leaves us no closer to a decision about the fall – whether classes or football will be held on college campuses. But according to a recently updated survey in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 74 percent of colleges across the country are preparing for in-person classes.

Eleven of the 14 Big Ten schools have responded to the survey so far, and eight said they were planning for in-person classes. Three have not made a determination and three did not respond.

Michigan is among those that hopes to hold in-person classes this fall, while Michigan State, along with Minnesota and Northwestern did not respond to the survey.

During a recent appearance on Edyoucore’s “Get Lit” live chat, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said it would be “unfathomable” to have Michigan athletes playing sports if their fellow students are not also on campus taking classes.

College athletics were shut down in mid-March amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and there have been widespread shutdowns nationally of most businesses. There have been more than 1.3 million cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and more than 78,000 deaths, including nearly 47,000 cases in Michigan, where there have been more than 4,500 COVID-related deaths.

More: Wojo: Michigan's Jim Harbaugh gives the sport something more to chew on

Iowa, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education survey, is planning a “full normal operation” for its universities, including the University of Iowa. Ohio State is leaning toward in-person classes and will make a final decision in late June, while Purdue is planning to start the fall semester in person if testing allows. Wisconsin will make a decision by the end of July, and Penn State will have an update by June 15.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren appeared last week on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” and said he is relying on the advice of medical experts and is having daily calls with conference athletic directors, and university chancellors and presidents, to determine the league’s path going forward.

“I’m looking to be in a position, I would say, in the next six to eight weeks to see if we have sports in the fall, but even bigger than sports in the fall, is that we’re collectively in the Big Ten focusing on what we need to do to have school in the fall, because if we don’t have school in the fall then we don’t have sports in the fall,” Warren said on CNBC. “What can we do to make sure we can return to our campuses in a safe manner where we can educate our students, and then what do we do to make sure we can return to practice in the fall in a safe manner?”

Warren said the Big Ten “will always make sure we put the health safety and wellness of our student athletes at the epicenter,” as well as coaches, administrators and fans.

The Big Ten is “exploring all types of scenarios” regarding a return this fall, Warren said, adding they’re all working on this seven days a week.

“I am very confident we will make the right decisions from a Big Ten Conference standpoint and from a college athletics standpoint,” he said.

Manuel made clear in his comments the campus must be open before athletes return to play games.

“I’ve said all along, these are not professionals. I don’t treat them way,” Manuel said. “They may drive ticket sales and people interested in coming and sitting in our stadium. We have the largest stadium in the country, proud of that.

“If it’s about the safety of our student-athletes versus filling that stadium, I’d rather it sit empty until we’re in the position to make sure our student-athletes, our coaches and our fans are safe, and their health is primary. We’ll figure it out just like everybody is doing on the financial side, but we can’t play games with people's health and safety.”

Big Ten plans 

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked colleges across the country if they were planning on in-person classes in the fall. How Big Ten schools responded:

►Illinois: "We are planning for in-person classes to begin as scheduled."

►Indiana: Will return to in-person instruction in the fall in a best-case scenario.

►Iowa: Planning "a full normal operation" for its universities — including Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa — and "in person classes, reopening of residence halls" in the fall.

►Maryland: Planning to start in-person, but some larger classes may be online.

►Michigan: Hopes to hold classes in-person.

►Nebraska: "Expects to hold classes on its campuses in the fall." The chancellor of the Lincoln campus wrote on April 24, "UNL will be open in the fall for in-person instruction," taking public-health guidance, safety, and social distancing into account.

►Ohio State: Leaning toward in-person classes, with a final decision by late June.

►Penn State: Expects updates on fall semester by June 15.

►Purdue: Planning to start fall semester in-person if testing and contact tracing allows.

►Rutgers: Waiting to decide.

►Wisconsin: Decision by end of July. Currently considering three models: face-to-face, entirely online, and hybrid.

►Have not responded: Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern