LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Students at universities all over Michigan are receiving emails from their schools welcoming them back for the fall, but a cloud of concern is hovering because of the coronavirus pandemic.
To go online or to come in person has been the debate, but since Michigan State University announced Tuesday it will go online for the next semester, the debate is reaching a fever pitch.
“I just can’t believe that they would wait this long. I would have changed around my whole plans,” MSU transfer sophomore Sophia Kalakailo said after hearing the school’s announcement.
If the announcement had come any later, Kalakailo said she would have been stuck in a lease paying more than $500 a month to live near a campus where she won’t take classes, which start Sept. 2.
All 15 of Michigan’s public universities have public COVID-19 mitigation plans. They include mandatory health checks and wearing symptom monitors. Though each plan is different, all include a mask requirement in campus buildings and a vow that the university will do its best to ensure student safety.
University of Michigan doctoral student Aya M. Waller-Bey wonders how her school can ensure students’ safety if classes are in-person. Students there must self isolate for 14 days before coming back to campus for classes Aug. 31, but the school offers no mention of enforcement.
“I’m not sure what public health informed data and research that they’re using to make that assertion that they can truly protect students, staff and faculty from a COVID outbreak,” Waller-Bey said. “I do not know how you would enforce thousands of students quarantining for 14 days. I don’t think it’s possible, but I think what it does is put the onus and the burden on the students.”
Though students will not reap the benefits of in-person instruction at MSU or take part in the on-campus experience, the university president says the online education offered has the same value. Tuition is frozen for the 2020-21 school year.
“Regardless of the format of instruction, MSU is delivering courses taught by highly qualified and world-class faculty, tutoring services, faculty office hours and access, academic advising and access to our libraries,” President Samuel Stanley said in a media release. “The value of an MSU degree is significant and the modality of instruction does not reduce that value.”
Some students disagree.
Tyler Weisner, a computer science senior now without access to labs and other on-campus resources, said he contacted multiple university offices seeking a tuition reduction without success. But he felt like he needed to do more so he started a petition demanding lower tuition. He sent it to the school Tuesday with nearly 1,000 signatures.
The senior said it’s obvious MSU doesn’t prioritize upperclassmen since they can’t take credits anywhere else and have them count toward their degree. Like many colleges, MSU limits what and how many credits students can transfer.
“You’re kind of like just trapped in this agreement where you’re paying them money and they don’t really have to care about you anymore.” Weisner said.
By not taking early action, Weisner said MSU locked in its most profitable age group, freshmen, who will pay tuition for typically four years.
Eastern Michigan University hasn’t shown any signs of following MSU’s lead but Naiomi Wilson, who’s in her last year of the combined athletic training program there, said she worries about the future of her education.
Wilson said the nine people in her program are set to come in once a week to do in-person training necessary to begin careers. Because just nine people are in the program, she’s not too worried that her classmates will not practice social distancing and take other precautions, but she has concerns for when the campus population comes back for classes Aug. 31.
“There needs to be a little more consideration for certain groups of students, like nursing students. You’re not learning nursing online,” Wilson said. “It’s just a little frustrating that I guess the responses are the same across the board when I don’t necessarily know that they should be.”
MSU hasn’t yet announced clear plans for its graduate students.
Being a parent of a student can be frustrating, too, said Michelle Rick, a judge in central Michigan and a mother of three college students. They are students at Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University and MSU, facing issues like medical board exams postponed and difficulty with learning online.
“We worry not about what are the choices that our kids make, but you can’t necessarily control the decision making of other people,” Rick said. “You’re trusting that people are making the right choices.”
To ensure that students make the right choices and keep gatherings under 25 people, Ann Arbor police announced they will partner with the University of Michigan to enforce social distancing guidelines on the campus.
Waller-Bey, the U-M doctoral student, said that with a national conversation taking place about over-policing of minorities, that decision “does not seem to read the room well.”
“The criminalization of behaviors that otherwise would be permissible under any other circumstance creates this strange police state that did not exist in this iteration, because the university has failed to make a decision that actually honors the lives of its students, its staff and the members and stakeholders in the university,” Waller-Bey said.
And she wonders what will happen to the custodians and other non-academic employees.
“Who is really going to clean up the mess and I mean that literally?” Waller-Bey asked. “What are the ramifications for having these people be exposed to all these young people from all over? These universities have articulated commitments to equity and inclusion of diversity. Perhaps they only mean that for students and staff and faculty, but there are so many other important members of our university communities.”
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.