The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is clinging to the dream of an in-person fall semester, even as many of its peers step back in the face of a global pandemic. But many Ann Arbor residents see the opening of campus as a nightmare scenario. They have inundated city-council members with calls, urging the council to stop the spread of coronavirus amid a student influx. Local parents worry that the university’s reopening will hurt the prospects of in-person K-12 education. Senior citizens don’t feel safe moving around the city. Business owners fear the devastating effects of another shutdown, after months of progress.The university’s reopening plan calls for large classes to be held remotely, small classes to be in person, and medium-sized classes to be a hybrid of the two. It encourages vulnerable members of the community to work and learn remotely. Waves of students — an estimated 20,000 or so — started pouring into town last week in preparation for classes, which begin Monday. Early reports about students’ lack of commitment to face coverings and social distancing have troubled city-council members. While the University of Michigan welcomes students, many other colleges are throwing in the towel. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, and Towson University are a few of the many institutions that have reversed plans for an in-person fall in the last couple of weeks. Closer to home, Michigan State University moved courses online and Eastern Michigan University, just a few miles from Ann Arbor, delayed move-in for three weeks.To crack down on partying and social-distancing scofflaws, colleges and towns are working together to coordinate messaging. In Ann Arbor, the city council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that calls for fines of up to $250 for people who flout social distancing and mask guidelines. The ordinance, which reinforces existing public-health guidance, aligns with on-campus guidance from the university, one city council member said.The ordinance was the result of growing anxiety among city residents about the campus reopening. Even those whose livelihoods typically depend on a robust local population are nervous about the influx of students. Business owners have been slammed by shutdowns and a public skittish about spending, so they understand the desire to bring tens of thousands of potential customers back to town. But in Ann Arbor, the calculation is complicated.“I value my life over profit,” says Ali Ramlawi, a city-council member and local restauranteur. “And quite frankly, the university’s decision to be in-person could be more detrimental to our business, because if outbreaks do occur, we’ll be rolled back into a more constrictive economic environment. This is turning into an experiment, and we’re using city residents and the Ann Arbor ecosystem as guinea pigs.”Ramlawi, who co-sponsored the city-council ordinance, is the owner of Jerusalem Garden, a popular Palestinian restaurant about half a mile from campus. The pandemic has been devastating to his business. Even though state law allowed restaurants to open at 50-percent capacity, he decided to offer takeout only.In May, things got so bad he shut down for three weeks. Nervous employees didn’t want to come in to work. A new plan had to be developed almost daily. But by July, he had found his footing, he said. Now, with students in town, uncertainty reigns again. “We’re seeing a disregard to the social contract that we all need to sign when it comes to this pandemic,” Ramlawi said. “It’s spring break in Ann Arbor. We don’t see the behavior by the student population that we were told we would see by the leadership of the University of Michigan.”He lamented a photo that recently went viral on social media. It depicted a lewd banner draped from a home at which students had gathered on the front lawn. The banner, implicitly dismissive of face coverings, stated that a certain sex act can’t be performed with a mask on. That message and other behavior outraged local residents, Ramlawi said. He’s not sure whether the town-gown relationship has suffered long-term damage.“We’ll see what the university does in the coming days in response to this behavior we’re seeing,” he said. “It’s just not safe. We’re questioning the wisdom and necessity of this.”The city’s residents are not the only ones. An advisory committee convened by the University of Michigan’s president, Mark S. Schlissel, composed of several distinguished professors and campus leaders, delivered a 35-page report exploring the ethics of potential campus-return policies and proposing a framework for ethical decision-making.
This is turning into an experiment, and we’re using city residents and the Ann Arbor ecosystem as guinea pigs.
But in a later letter to Schlissel, dated July 31, the Covid-19 Ethics and Privacy Committee sought “to underscore, with urgency, our concern that current plans for Fall 2020 will not meet the reasonable standard for safety recommended by our report, that good alternatives exist, and that it is not too late to pursue them.”The main alternative is remote education. The letter also noted the broader responsibility the university has to the community, including doing its part to restore K-12 education. Ann Arbor Public Schools will open virtually with no immediate plans to resume in-person learning. It also stated that a shutdown after reopening could be even worse than the shift online in the spring because infected students could take the virus back to their communities.When asked to reconcile the university’s reopening plan with the committee’s advice, a university spokeswoman wrote in an email that “our goal is to approximate risk here with what students would experience in their communities.”“We have significantly reduced density on campus, with approximately 68-percent capacity in the residence halls,” the email continued. “We have moved to mostly remote classes, with 77 percent of credit hours among undergraduates being taken remotely, and only those classes instructors deemed important to do in person are being done that way. We continue to ask staff who can work from home to continue to do so.”Even so, as of this week, about 20,000 undergraduates are scheduled to have at least one in-person or hybrid course, and that many young adults are bound to profoundly alter the feel of the city Julie Grand, a council member who is also an academic adviser at the Ann Arbor campus, says many residents are angry because they perceive the university’s reopening as working against the community’s hard-fought goal to keep Covid-19 transmission rates low. Over all, Michigan has recorded about 100,000 total coronavirus cases and 6,500 deaths; Washtenaw County, which encompasses Ann Arbor, has accounted for fewer than 3,000 cases and 120 deaths. The county had a test positivity rate of about 2 percent as of last week. Grand thinks deeply about health systems. She received her Ph.D. from the Ann Arbor campus in health services, organization, and policy, and works closely with students. She said the university’s reopening plan struck her as highly dependent on total or near-total compliance from a young adult population that isn’t developmentally prepared.“What that does,” Grand says, “is it sets up the students to be the fall if it doesn’t go well. Anyone who works with a student population knows there was not a strong chance of this working out well. That’s my frustration with it.”Some faculty members share that worry. Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of German studies and comparative literature, pointed to an email Schlissel and other campus leaders sent to students Monday, imploring them to be vigilant in preventing the spread of coronavirus. “Preparations to prevent spread of infection have worked well in classrooms, residence halls, and elsewhere on campus,” the leaders wrote, “but it’s behavior off campus that is the major risk. It just takes one unsafe gathering to upend all of the preparations we have made.”Weineck is troubled by that framing. “That seems to imply that all preparations were made on the assumption that there would not be a single unsafe gathering,” she said. “My son is in law school at Penn and I asked him, ‘Do you think everyone will wear masks and socially distance?’ He just laughed.”One person who’s not laughing as much these days is Ann Arbor’s police chief, Michael Cox. In addition to the public-health concerns the in-person semester has caused, it has heightened concerns around policing. The university and local police have forged a closer working relationship to monitor off-campus student behavior at a time when some other institutions are seeking to limit their work with local police. “There’s always a group of people who think we should be doing more,” Cox says. “There’s always a group of folks who think we should be doing less. And we’re in a period where some people don’t think we should even exist.”The latter two categories include student activists who have been asking the university to cut ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department. Instead, the department announced last week that it would partner with the university to create canvassing teams of two or three people that include faculty, staff, students, and community engagement officers. Their task: to remind students and community members to follow public-health guidance.With policing in American society under the microscope, activists have expressed worry about increased contact between students and armed law enforcement. The university’s monitoring plan is “completely unacceptable as it only places students and workers in further danger,” said Jeff A. Horowitz, an organizer with the anti-policing working group in the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union that represents the university’s graduate assistants, in an email. “Policing the reopening is a transparent attempt to paper over the harmful consequences of holding in-person classes.”Cox is trying to thread the needle in the department’s approach to encouraging safe behavior. The community-policing approach emphasizes education over enforcement. A citation for violating social-distancing policy, which he notes is a civil infraction, is rare and only occurs if the violation is egregious or repeated.The pandemic has opened new channels of communication with the university, Cox says. Now the department will pass along the names of students engaged in problematic behavior, such as those that the department comes in repeated contact with, to the administration, even if the students don’t receive citations. It’s a model of what community policing should look like, Cox said: a de-emphasis on enforcement. Or, perhaps, a shift in who does the enforcing.“The students are not very fearful of the Ann Arbor Police Department, in my opinion,” Cox said. “But I do think they are very fearful of their dean’s office.”