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U of M faculty and staff looking for clarity on COVID guidelines as 2021-22 school year starts

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Fall semester classes began Monday at the University of Michigan, but some faculty and staff have already expressed some concerns about the impact of COVID-19. Some faculty members have circulated a petition asking the university to clarify its plans to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The petition, which has over 600 signatures, asks U of M to specify what COVID-19 case numbers would trigger a pivot to 100% remote instruction. It also asks for specifics on how the university will ensure compliance with its vaccine mandate, as well as transparency on students' vaccination status. 

"The lack of actual enforcement of (and information about) student vaccination status renders a cornerstone of the current vaccine policy ineffectual. Each instructor should be empowered to know if their class vaccination rate falls below, for example, 85%, in order to make informed decisions about shifting to virtual," the petition says.

Michael Atzmon is a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at U of M. He says not having the information makes it difficult to plan for different outcomes throughout the semester.

"The administration needs to establish criteria under what conditions will all the teachings be moved to remote. They’ve been extremely vague, which has contributed to the anxiety we see among colleagues," he said.

Another big concern of the petition flexibility when it comes to modes of teaching. It asks administration to "put decisions about teaching modality in the hands of the faculty." 

Rebekah Modrak is a professor at the Stamps School of Art and Design at U of M. She says she's heard many anecdotes of colleagues who've asked for exemptions from being required to teach in person, which were denied.

"All of these instructors are making huge sacrifices and they’re taking risks to be in the classroom. These are faculty, many of them with medical conditions or who have family at home with conditions or children who are not yet vaccinated," she said.

Modrak says she and many other instructors developed creative ways of connecting with students and making remote learning engaging, and they're ready to do it again. She says it concerns her that physical distancing isn't a factor, what with the more contagious Delta variant. 

"Many of the classrooms right now are set up like 'normal times,' so you know: in arts, 18 students in a classroom. Last year, if that class had been in person, they would've split that class into two groups over two classroom spaces," she said. "There's not the expectation for social distancing that we saw last year before the Delta variant."

Other concerns outlined by the petition include providing the school community with more information about the air filtration and ventilation systems as it pertains to the potential spread of COVID, as well as making sure there are "robust" and "comprehensive" mitigation procedures.

Atzmon says there's a general feeling of concern that U of M didn't learn from the 2020-2021 school year, when the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay at home order for students.

"I predict a huge spike in COVID cases," he said. "This semester, I'm going to be teaching a small course. I'm not too worried for my own safety, but I'm generally worried about the safety of other instructors and students. The administration needs to recognize reality: that we have a new situation with the Delta variant."

"I should also mention that we have many junior colleagues who don't have tenure, or instructors who don't have tenure, and they're afraid to speak up," Atzmon said.

U of M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university plans to directly respond to the organizers of the petition, but offered some clarifications.

"One important point that our campus public health experts have shared is that the classroom may be the safest place on campus this fall with 92 percent of students fully vaccinated, 89 percent of faculty fully vaccinated and everyone – regardless of vaccination status – wearing a face covering," he said.

U of M also updated its metrics for changes in learning plans on Tuesday morning. The guidance says any of the criteria could lead to a change in campus policy, but does not specify what particular campus policy. The criteria includes doubling of COVID cases on campus within a seven day period, as well as percent positivity of 3% in asymptomatic people getting tested through the Community Sampling and Tracking Program (most of whom will be unvaccinated). The measures also mention a strain on public health capacity.

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Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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