After a 'Covid Semester,' the University of Michigan Gets Tougher on the Virus

November 20, 2020 

The University of Michigan's flagship campus in Ann Arbor opened the fall semester with great expectations. Thousands of students were welcomed back to the dorms in August. Nearly one in three classes offered in-person instruction. Even Big Ten football eventually kicked off its season after some early doubts.

Pessimists were asked to reserve judgment. But hundreds of faculty and graduate assistants protested the level of face-to-face interaction. Several prominent public health experts scorned the school's lack of mandatory coronavirus testing. Parents worried that students would not be safe.

Sure enough, by midsemester, coronavirus clusters were erupting on and off campus: 11 positive tests in a week in the athletic department; 13 more tied to two restaurants near campus; 17 in one dormitory. In October, county health authorities ordered the whole campus to shelter in place, citing "social gatherings" on or near campus as a major source of infections.

Now, after more than 2,540 Covid-19 cases among students and staff, the university is shifting course drastically. It has asked students not to come back to campus in January unless they have to. Each dorm room will hold only one person, forcing thousands of students to stay home or find off-campus housing. Instruction will be remote in 90 percent of classes. Students who violate certain health rules will face tougher sanctions, including automatic probation, and coronavirus tests will be mandatory for anyone coming to campus.

"One thing I've learned in this Covid semester is that every decision you make that makes one subset of people happy will make a different subset of people unhappy," said the school's president, Mark Schlissel, a physician, who has been a focus of criticism all year and is being pummeled again with complaints about the school's new policies.

"What's changed is the national context," he said. "The outbreak is blossoming again all over the country, including in our state."

ImageKaren O'Brien and her son William O'Brien, a Michigan freshman, packed up his dorm room on Monday. About 3,000 students will be allowed back into university housing.
Karen O'Brien and her son William O'Brien, a Michigan freshman, packed up his dorm room on Monday. About 3,000 students will be allowed back into university housing.Credit...Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

The University of Michigan's about-face comes as the nation is recording more than 162,000 new virus cases a day and many states are imposing tougher health restrictions. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has suspended in-person classes in high schools and colleges, and shut down bars, indoor dining, bowling alleys and other businesses for three weeks despite intense opposition from many Republicans, including members of the Trump administration.

In many ways, the school's chaotic fall has typified the struggles of big state universities that tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy amid contagion, allowing intercollegiate sports, Greek life and off-campus housing -- often without the kind of mandatory coronavirus testing considered crucial to containing outbreaks.

And like Michigan, many of those universities are now looking to batten down their hatches for the winter and spring semesters. Virtually all classes at the university pivoted this week to remote instruction, and students will be sent home Friday until the Jan. 19 start of the winter semester.

The State University of New York has delayed 2021 classes until Feb. 1 across its 64-campus system, requiring all students to be tested upon their return and throughout the semester. Dozens of campuses -- the University of Arizona, the University of Wyoming, Cornell University, the University of Kentucky and many others -- have canceled spring break, while the Ivy League has ended intercollegiate athletic competition at least through February.

There are some schools looking to open up their campuses. At the behest of its Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, Florida's public universities plan to offer even more face-to-face classes next year. But they seem to be outliers.

Though the virus has proved to be less lethal among young people, it has also spread like wildfire on many campuses. A New York Times survey has revealed at least 321,000 cases at 1,700 colleges across the country. Among the hardest hit: Clemson University in South Carolina with more than 5,080 cases; the University of Florida with more than 5,000; and the University of Georgia with more than 4,380.


A sign on a campus dorm urges only residents to enter the building.Credit...Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

The prospect of a vaccine, while encouraging, is not likely to make campuses safer in the short term, said Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington evolutionary biologist who has been tracking the pandemic.

"I don't think there's anybody now who thinks this will be gone by January," Mr. Bergstrom said. "It's clear that we have to hunker down."

That assumption was less clear this summer, when Michigan decided to bring some 6,400 students back to campus housing. Students relished the prospect of college-town life in Ann Arbor. Regents welcomed the revenue from housing.

Health experts were cautiously optimistic, too, including Dr. Schlissel, who earned his M.D. and Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is an immunologist.

He was especially hopeful that campus rules would influence the behavior of students who planned to rent apartments in Ann Arbor -- typically two-thirds of the school's 48,000 undergraduate and graduate students live off-campus -- because they could not break a lease or because "they'd rather live with their friends than in mom's basement."

In an August message to campus, he wrote that off-campus students might even end up safer than if they had chosen to study remotely from home.

But Michigan did not mandate weekly or biweekly coronavirus tests as a condition of coming onto campus, as did some universities, including Duke University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Beyond an initial pre-entry test that students were instructed to take before the fall semester started, testing was limited to people who had been exposed to the virus, who had symptoms or who opted in to a weekly surveillance sample of about 3,000 volunteers.

At that time, the commercial labs working with the university could not process tens of thousands of tests fast enough to effectively contain outbreaks, Dr. Schlissel said; the university's own hospital worried that it could not help without undermining care for patients.


Off-campus housing in Ann Arbor, Mich.Credit...Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

Ann Arbor had a relatively low infection rate, he told university employees, and a lot of risk could be mitigated with masks and social distance. But faculty were not reassured.

"Show us the science," more than 830 faculty members and graduate instructors demanded in an Aug. 7 letter, citing an influential study on campus reopening that suggested the University of Michigan needed to do much more testing. In an online town hall, Dr. Schlissel tried to explain that testing had limits, even at places like the University of Illinois, which had invested heavily in testing and tracing. But his choice of words inflamed the situation.

"Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security," he told the faculty, repeating a Trump administration argument against testing. And universal testing at an institution Michigan's size was, he said, "science fiction." Without evidence, he added that the H.I.V. epidemic had spread as "people got a negative test and they presented it to their sex partners."

Dr. Schlissel quickly walked back the H.I.V. remark and apologized, saying he only meant to question the effectiveness of universal testing. But the video was on YouTube. Gregg Gonsalves, professor of epidemiology at Yale University and co-director of the Global Health Justice Partnership, called his stance "egregious" in The Nation, and other epidemiologists, including Mr. Bergstrom and one of the authors of the study on safe reopening, Yale's A. David Paltiel, blasted him on Twitter.

By the time fall classes started on Aug. 31, graduate students were preparing to strike rather than teach face-to-face, and undergraduates, parents and faculty were petitioning for expanded testing. Two and a half weeks later -- on the same day the Big Ten announced it had found a way to test athletes daily and therefore would go ahead with football season -- Dr. Schlissel's faculty narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in him.

The faculty relationship has since improved, but the virus has whipsawed the campus. Dr. Schlissel said outbreaks have been traced almost entirely to undergraduate gatherings. In late October, after health authorities in surrounding Washtenaw County slapped the whole campus with an emergency stay-in-place order, the faculty petitioned the president for a winter semester with fewer students in dorms, fewer in-person classes and much more mandatory testing. It had more than 1,100 signatures.


Harrison Bromberg, left, plans to return to his off-campus apartment after the holidays, and Emma Shpall, right, has found new off-campus housing.Credit...Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

Dr. Schlissel still talks about testing as just one key tool in a combination of actions necessary to control the virus, but he has come around, he said, to seeing its importance in "reassuring" the community. When classes resume in 2021, the university will de-densify the dorms and ramp up testing. Only about 3,000 students will be allowed back into university housing, and anyone who comes onto campus, symptomatic or not, will have to be cleared via a saliva-based test processed by a faculty-founded start-up in Ann Arbor.

"If they don't," Dr. Schlissel said, "we'll inactivate their ID cards."

The retrenchment has pleased faculty but upset undergraduates and their parents. More than 1,500 angry parents have signed a petition protesting the short notice with which the university canceled spring housing contracts. If the university doesn't "reverse its drastic decision to close the dorms," it says, the parents want a discount.

"He should say, 'Listen, we screwed up,' and apologize to all of us," said Amy Tara Koch, a Chicago writer and Michigan alumna whose daughter, a freshman, scrambled last week to find an apartment for the spring in Ann Arbor. "And then give a tuition abatement. Out-of-state tuition there is, like, $50,000."

The disappointment has been particularly keen, other parents said, because Michigan's reputation for academic excellence had led them to expect a state-of-the-art response to the crisis.

"It's all too little, too late," said Sherry Levine, a teacher from Rye Brook, N.Y., whose son, a junior, lives in a fraternity house in Ann Arbor, and who feels the university's pandemic response all year has been merely "reactive."

Dr. Schlissel said the university had refunded housing deposits for the spring, offered lower double-room rates to students who'll spend the spring in a single and already "apologized profusely." And, he noted, not all of the fall semester lessons were negative.

"Students continued in their studies, they'll get credit for the semester, they're going to head toward being Michigan graduates and they're doing so in an environment that is really challenging," he said. "Everyone is doing their best."

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