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.
Pessimists were asked to reserve judgment. Parents worried that students would not be safe.
Sure enough, by midsemester, coronavirus clusters were erupting on and off campus. 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. 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.
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.
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.
And like Michigan, many of those universities are now looking to batten down their hatches for the winter and spring semesters.
When classes resume in 2021, Michigan 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,” said the university’s president, Mark Schlissel, a physician, “we’ll inactivate their ID cards.”
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