U-M announces winter semester plans for academics, housing, increased testing

November 6, 2020
Written By:
Don Jordan

Aerial view of the University of Mihigan Campus. Image credit: Michigan Photography

With the goal of balancing safety concerns with the university’s academic mission and the well-being and support of the campus community, University of Michigan leaders have announced 2021 winter semester plans that include more remote courses, fewer undergraduates living on campus and more widely available COVID-19 testing.

The comprehensive plan, announced Nov. 6, draws on public health guidance, broad feedback gathered from the campus community and lessons learned from the fall term. It includes a provision that undergraduate students who don’t need to live on campus should remain at their permanent residences for the semester to reduce density in U-M residence halls.

The plan also includes mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing for undergraduate students living, learning, working or doing research in person on the Ann Arbor campus, major increases in asymptomatic testing for all members of the campus community and new measures to support mental health and well-being.

President Mark Schlissel wrote in an email message to the campus community that safety remains the top priority, and that the plan reflects widespread requests from students and instructors for more testing and an opportunity to continue to advance their academic goals as effectively and safely as possible.

“We have engaged broadly across the campus to gather input from faculty, staff and students,” Schlissel wrote. “Our plan for the winter term reflects the best of what we learned and what we’ve heard that you hope to achieve going forward.”

Planning for the winter semester required a delicate balance of many important priorities, including safety and public health concerns, the university’s academic mission and the experiences of those in the U-M community, said Provost Susan M. Collins.

“I appreciate the thought, energy and care that so many have contributed to developing a path forward for our university,” Collins said.

Under the plan for the winter 2021 term, the university will act in the following areas:


U-M will continue the approach to instruction it has implemented in recent weeks, with more remote classes and in-person classes limited to those most effectively taught through this format or required for licensure.

Instructors will be able to use the format they believe is most appropriate. There will be fewer hybrid classes that are partially online and partially in person based on feedback from instructors about the difficulty in teaching them.

No instructor will be required to teach in-person if they would prefer not to.

COVID-19 testing

The university will implement a mandatory weekly testing program for undergraduates who live on campus or attend in-person classes or activities, perform research, use facilities such as libraries, unions or Recreational Sports, or work on campus.

Weekly asymptomatic testing will be available for all graduate, professional and undergraduate students who are not otherwise covered by a mandatory program, as well as staff and faculty working or teaching on campus.

On-campus housing

Based on expert advice that lowering density in residence halls decreases COVID-19 transmission, undergraduate students who don’t need to live in residence halls should remain at their permanent residences for the semester, according to the plan.

All U-M Housing contracts for undergraduate residents will be canceled for the winter semester.

“We know that asking students to leave their residence halls in the middle of the year is disappointing and disruptive, and we apologize for that,” said Martino Harmon, vice president for student life. “The community created within a residence hall is an important part of the college experience, but safety has to come first.”

Undergraduates who need to remain on campus for the winter term can request housing based on certain need-based criteria, such as health, wellness or safety concerns, financial need, specific academic need, status as international students or U-M Housing ResStaff student employees, or other extraordinary, extenuating circumstances.

Undergraduate housing will be assigned one person per room, following public health recommendations.

Public health policy enforcement

Students returning to campus in the winter will encounter a strict, no-tolerance approach to enforcing COVID-19-related policies. Depending on the violation, penalties will include automatic probation, University Housing contract termination and removing university recognition for student organizations hosting or participating in social gatherings.

Mental health and well-being

The university will add two mid-week, one-day “well-being breaks” without any scheduled academic activities on Feb. 24 and March 23.

Counseling and Psychological Services is expanding this year with eight additional counselors to reduce wait times and augment services, which are mostly virtual for students during the pandemic. Additional wellness services such as Wolverine Wellness and Recreational Sports facilities also will continue to be available to the U-M community.

U-M staff members working from home will continue to do so throughout the winter semester.

The university has announced three additional paid days off during the upcoming holiday breaks for eligible faculty and staff, thanking them and saying they “have risen to the challenge” of advancing the university’s mission during the pandemic.

The Faculty and Staff Counseling and Consultation Office is offering virtual discussion groups tailored specifically to foster resilience during the pandemic for employees.

Meanwhile, the Workplace Innovation and the Staff Experience Committee, charged with providing recommendations to help staff members sustain their work as the campus emerges from the pandemic, is in the final stages of preparing recommendations. Those recommendations are expected to focus on how to achieve the full staff experience for employees, regardless of work location.

“We will continue to face challenges this winter just as we did this fall, but we’ve learned from these experiences and the feedback from our community,” Harmon said. “This plan allows us to meet the critical needs of our students, faculty and staff while keeping their safety and the safety of the greater community at the forefront.”

The winter semester plans incorporate many of the recommendations made to Collins and Harmon by the Campus Coordinating Committee, but include a lower housing density and fewer in-person classes and activities for undergraduates.

Recommendations for testing were developed by the School of Public Health Advisory Group and the COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee. University leaders also discussed the plan with officials from the Washtenaw County Health Department.

The Campus Coordinating Committee, chaired by College of Engineering dean Alec Gallimore, submitted recommendations after incorporating feedback, advice and suggestions from a number of sources, including a student survey, various residence hall focus group discussions and an instructor survey developed with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs that was sent to all tenure-track and clinical-track faculty, lecturers and graduate student instructors.

The committee also incorporated ideas from a staff survey sent to student affairs staff in campus units and Student Life employees, budget administrators and chief human resources officers in academic units, the Public Health Steering Committee and the Academic Program Group made up of deans and directors.

Schlissel, Collins and Harmon also met with many individuals and groups, including the COVID-19 Faculty Council, while the plan was under development to gather critical feedback and ideas.

The Campus Coordinating Committee sought to balance a number of interests through its recommendations, including the university’s academic mission, public health, mental health and community well-being, and the experience of students, staff and faculty this semester.

The top concern remains the health and safety of the U-M and Ann Arbor communities, especially as cold-and-flu season begins and colder weather drives more people indoors.

The number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in Michigan has continued to rise. Recently, the state’s seven-day average for new daily cases reached the highest it has ever been, and hospitalizations across the state are increasing.

The state trends for the disease reflect a larger surge in COVID-19 happening across the country.

A 14-day Washtenaw County Health Department stay-in-place order for U-M undergraduates expired Nov. 3 with cases among 18- to 29-year-olds in the county decreasing. The percentage of the county’s cases that were associated with U-M students dropped from 60 percent when the order was issued to about 33 percent.

Still, the number of cases in Washtenaw County remains high overall and the weekly test positivity rate has increased to nearly 4 percent, according to county officials.

“We all must continue to do everything we can to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on each of us and on our community,” Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County, said. “Recent weeks have left no doubt that the virus continues to circulate and have also confirmed that we can minimize its negative impacts by continuing to use face coverings and distance and cooperating fully with all public health guidance.”

A recent report developed by campus public health experts warned that while patterns of transmission during the winter are unknown for the virus that causes COVID-19, other common coronaviruses generally see upticks during the months of December through March.

Model-based projections suggest likely increases in cases and deaths, as well as persistent high rates of the disease throughout the winter.

“Our experience this semester resulted in an unacceptable level of COVID-19 cases among our undergraduate students, both on campus and off, that got to a level that threatened our public health capacity to control the spread of the virus,” Schlissel said. “The changes we’ve made for winter semester reflect what we’ve learned and what we must do to keep our community safe.”

Feedback supports continuing current class formats to meet academic mission

In their final report, members of the Campus Coordinating Committee wrote that they wanted the university to ensure all students and faculty could continue to advance their academic goals in the upcoming semester. That included providing opportunities to complete important coursework, engage in research and creative activities, and receive mentorship.

A survey offered last month to all degree-seeking students on the Ann Arbor campus showed that at least 85 percent of respondents at each degree level intend to remain enrolled for the winter semester if it is in the same format as the fall 2020 semester. About a quarter of undergraduates responded that they were not sure of their plans or would take the semester off if the school went fully remote.

More than 82 percent of respondents to an instructor survey said their courses were going either as expected or better than expected.

The report further cited that the gradual return to research operations during the fall semester has been successful and the redesign of campus spaces for appropriate in-person instruction has enabled limited in-person instruction to be conducted safely.

There is little evidence of viral transmission in the university’s educational facilities, and essential in-person educational experiences have been able to continue, the report stated.

Reduced undergraduate housing density, continued ‘grab-and-go’ dining

The university will reduce undergraduate housing density through a process that limits access only to undergraduates with certain need-based criteria. Most undergraduates will be strongly encouraged to remain at their permanent addresses and access instruction remotely, including those currently living in off-campus housing in Ann Arbor.

Undergraduate students meeting the following criteria may be offered continued access to campus housing:

  • Health, wellness, or safety concerns.
  • International status.
  • Financial need.
  • Specific academic need.
  • Michigan Housing ResStaff student employees.
  • Other extraordinary, extenuating circumstances.

The process for students to request consideration for winter semester housing will be shared directly with students living in university housing.

Graduate and professional students are able to continue living on campus in their current locations and densities because there have been very few cases of COVID-19 within the graduate student communities.

The shift to less dense undergraduate housing is intended to mitigate the inherent risks of students residing on campus at a time when weather prevents outdoor activities and the risk of virus spread is greater.

Additionally, fewer students living on campus will help to lower the student-to-resident assistant ratio, a recurrent concern raised by resident assistants in feedback to university leaders. This option also will allow for better support of undergraduates, more manageable enforcement of COVID-19 violations and less need for additional dining and studying space.

Under the new plan, lounge spaces in university housing will be accessible by reservation only, dine-in options in the dining halls will not be available, and the university will maintain or increase its quarantine and isolation housing capacity of 600 units.

More than one in five undergraduates currently living in university housing said in the survey they plan to move out, are unsure of their plans, or intend not to enroll in the winter if the university maintains the same instructional format.

Given the reduced number of students on campus and an increase in students reporting feelings of loneliness and other mental health struggles, the university will continue to operate Recreational Sports facilities and programs, as well as club sports activities, under their current protocols for health and safety.

Additionally, Student Life will deliver a wide range of co-curricular educational programs and support offerings in a virtual format, including programming centered on health and well-being; student advocacy, support and intervention; and developing a community at U-M.

Certain University Unions facilities also will remain open with reduced hours since they have not been a site of COVID-19 spread.

Weekly testing mandatory for undergraduates on campus, available to others

The winter semester COVID-19 testing plan was informed by recommendations from a proposal developed by the School of Public Health Advisory Group with input from the COVID-19 Campus Health Response Committee.

Among the key aspects in the winter semester plan are a number of new testing protocols and opportunities. The university will:

  • Require a negative COVID-19 test from all residence hall residents prior to moving in.
  • Implement mandatory weekly testing for all undergraduate students who live in residence halls.
  • Implement mandatory weekly testing for all undergraduate students who come to campus to attend in-person classes or activities, use facilities such as libraries, unions or Recreational Sports, work or do research on campus. Testing for this group prior to starting any on-campus activities also is required and will be made available. Compliance with mandatory testing requirements will be linked to Mcard activation and facilities access.
  • Offer convenient weekly asymptomatic testing to all graduate, professional and undergraduate students who are not otherwise covered by a mandatory program, as well as faculty teaching in-person and staff working on campus.
  • Require a negative test for undergraduates departing university housing before returning to their permanent residence. A negative test will be recommended and testing made available for all other undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Expand the testing of individuals in quarantine to students living off campus and not using U-M quarantine housing.

Existing testing initiatives including surveillance testing, quarantine testing, symptomatic testing, and the testing of those exposed to persons with COVID-19 will continue.

Some recommendations require additional consideration and discussion and have not yet been adopted. These include mandatory entry testing for all instructional faculty and graduate student instructors with in-person teaching, and weekly mandatory testing for those teaching in settings where certain classroom mitigation policies are exempt, such as certain music and dance classes.

In addition, university officials are in discussion with students in congregate-living facilities, including fraternity and sorority life, on how to collaborate on the provision of campus entry testing and organized weekly testing programs.

Over the next several weeks, the Campus Health Response Committee testing team will work to finalize the details of the plan before the start of the winter semester.

Stricter enforcement of public health policy and penalties for violations

The plan for the semester also includes increased accountability measures with more serious consequences for those who violate public health policies.

Enforcement will take a no-tolerance approach for certain violations. Social gatherings of three or more on campus living in residence halls will result in automatic probation, and public health violations by students in quarantine or isolation housing would mean automatic termination of their University Housing contract.

Off-campus students who are determined to have engaged in these behaviors would be referred to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Washtenaw County Health Department or both.

In addition to the more serious penalties, the university will maintain the COVID Concerns Reporting Line for reporting off-campus concerns, and will continue enforcement partnerships with the Ann Arbor Police Department and Washtenaw County Health Department.


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