Is the Vaccine a Path to Normalcy at UM?
The Winding Path Forward
Anonymous Residential Advisor
The path to normalcy at the University of Michigan heavily depends on vaccines. With most students vaccinated, the University should be able to have a somewhat normal Fall 2021 semester: incorporating more in-person instruction but still requiring masks and social distancing. With more vaccines being approved for emergency use authorization by the FDA, I foresee that a majority of students attending the University will be vaccinated prior to the Fall.
The past year has been anything but normal at the University, especially for instruction and on-campus living. Remote learning has not provided students with the type of education they had hoped for when deciding to attend U-M. As an instructional aide for an introductory engineering class, I had heard from several of my students last semester that they would attend an in-person class if given the opportunity. Many of them have not had in-person instruction since March 2020, when COVID-19 caused school closures. Additionally, from an instructor’s perspective, it is difficult to gauge student engagement in an online environment.Therefore, my teaching experience was definitely very different than what I had originally anticipated.
As a current resident advisor on campus, I have also observed the effects of COVID-19 in University housing. At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, RAs went on strike to advocate for safer working conditions and better communication with University housing administrators. The strike was successful, resulting in the formation of a ResStaff Experience Council and the distribution of proper PPE to ResStaff employees. The REC is composed of an RA from each residence hall who meets with housing administrators to communicate their concerns and obtain clarification on policies.
Students living in residence halls have had a difficult year as well due to new policies directly resulting from the pandemic. One of the most prominent changes is that anyone not living in a given residence hall is not allowed to enter that building and that only one guest is permitted in your room at any given time. But, these new policies are not always followed, resulting in RAs writing up residents.
Vaccines are critical to the viability of in-person student engagement on campus. Everyone can agree that online student engagement events aren’t the same as in-person ones. It is difficult to gauge your audience’s attention from an organizer’s point of view, whereas for students, it is easier to lose focus. In University housing, the ability to hold better in-person events would help to improve students’ relationships both with each other and their resident advisors. However, many RAs still feel very uncomfortable with holding in-person events since many are not yet vaccinated. Coming into the Winter 2021 semester, RAs were told that they were considered to be part of Phase 1B, since, according to University guidelines, they consider us essential live-in staff. However, after the University announced that it had sent out appointments to all of those in Phase 1B, the majority of resident advisors realized that they had not been contacted and sought clarification from BlueQueue, the University’s vaccination program. After several days of back and forth communication, resident advisors were notified that housing live-in staff did not qualify for vaccinations in that phase. Vaccinating RAs earlier on would have allowed us to feel more comfortable fulfilling our responsibilities of holding in-person events and going on duty walks, where we are likely to encounter many people.
Having the majority of the student body vaccinated prior to the Fall 2021 semester would greatly improve students’ education and living experiences at the University of Michigan. For the Fall 2021 semester, it is likely that there will be more in-person instruction, which could help students better engage with their courses. University housing has mentioned to RAs that they intend to offer housing contracts to more students than they did in Fall 2020, signifying that a lot of the University’s plan for Fall 2021 hinges on a decrease in COVID-19 cases as a result of vaccinations. But, though I anticipate that cases will be down, there would likely still be some social distancing and mask wearing required by the University to ensure the safety of faculty, students, and staff. These could be lifted or more strictly enforced depending on the amount of COVID-19 cases in the fall. However, as of right now, it is evident that the University aims to provide as normal of a semester as possible for Fall 2021.
Towards the Known: How the Vaccine Might be the First Step Towards Normalcy
When I woke up on March 10th, 2020, I had no idea what was going to happen.
That the first COVID-19 cases here in Michigan were confirmed, and I was nearing the end of my junior year of high school. I wasn’t worried about my family’s health, my safety in school, or whether or not my life would change.
Now, nearly a year after those first cases popped up, I can’t help but think about all the ways in which my life has changed. I’m a senior in high school and I’ve mostly resigned myself to the idea that my senior year has not gone the way I dreamed it would. I had five college visits planned, and the only tour I ever went on was an informal one that my sister, who attends the University of Michigan, took me on herself. I couldn’t ask my teachers for letters of recommendations in person because, at the time, I was in online school. My first day of my last year in high school was spent wearing a mask, with only half of the student body present.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for absolutely everything that I have managed to get out of my senior year. My school is one of the few in the state that have managed to stay open for at least a portion of the year, which means I have had more in-person days than anyone else I know. This has meant the world to me, because during those few months before the school year began, I had accepted I might not have a senior year at all.
And then: the vaccine.
I put my deposit down for the University of Michigan a few months after the vaccine roll out began and ever since, I’ve let vaccination mean one thing to me above all: hope. In my eyes, the vaccine was the first sign of normalcy in which I was really able to believe. The pandemic consumed most of my life in the blink of an eye, and for the first time, I saw an end to it. It was the first time I really let myself think I might be able to take in-person classes next year or, I might be able to move into my dorm.
But what it really meant was that I might be able to have a normal college experience.
The vaccine signifies, at least to me, that the world had a chance of scraping through this. The vaccine meant that I might have a shot of living out my daydreams. The vaccine suggests predictability, dependability, and a viable road to a normal existence.
I had been living for these daydreams for years. I had been thinking about what my dorm would look like, what I’d do in Ann Arbor, what it’d be like to get up and go to college lectures, for years. I had heard my sister talking about college life. My friends, and I wanted it for ourselves. I can’t express how much it means to me to think that one day I might actually be able to have that.
I know there’s a lot at play and I know there’s a lot of concerns about what the vaccine might contain or the long term side-effects of taking it. With new strains, and trouble rolling out the vaccine, I understand that this glimmer of hope might just be an illusion. But still, it’s quite a bit more than what I had in high school. It’s something that has allowed me to smile, even through the toughest of times. It has become something to look forward to.
The path to normalcy and “post-COVID” life is a winding one, no one expected it not to be. It’s going to be a rocky, hard path, but I’m desperate to get walking on it. At the end are a million things we can’t even envision now, that we might actually be able to grasp in the future. And, it’s my belief that the only way to take the first step down that path is to remain optimistic.
Public Health Guidelines Enforcer: The Fall to the Vaccine
Anonymous Residential Advisor
A mumbled apology. Sorry… yeah, we can distance a bit more… What? You need to see my Mcard? I’ve heard countless variations of this script, mixed with an explanation or an appeal during my rounds as an RA in University of Michigan Housing. Our role as RAs puts us square in the crossfire between our dorm residents, public health guidelines, and our values. The main rules and processes are as follows: no guests in the dorms who don’t live there, you can only congregate in certain spaces with masks and in numbers that would allow social distancing, and unmasking is only allowed to eat, but when you are done eating—mask up. If residents are found breaking housing or public health guidelines, their MCard information is documented. If they had built up a record, they undergo a restorative justice process. For the enforcers of housing policy and public health guidelines, it would be so simple if students followed the policy en masse in the fall or if I were the type of person that could mercilessly enforce them.
Unfortunately, there was a mix of neither in this first COVID semester. COVID violations and cases soared and my readiness washed into naivety and misgivings. I was bummed that the role of enforcing important COVID-19 guidelines fell on us RAs who had chosen these roles to become community builders, not community cleavers. It also fell on other employees that were hired to enforce guidelines in campus buildings, and we all had the terrible task of having to use our judgment on when to enforce guidelines. In my experience, this usually translates to Is what this person or group doing so egregious that I can’t just give them a pass? which is a recipe for subjectivity and inconsistency across campus. Of course, the judgment is damned to be flawed; we aren’t scientists that know the fluid dynamics of viral coughs and sneezes, nor water benders that can sense wet COVID particles in the air. Yes, masks are important, yes, six feet distance is important—but I am also a human, and I empathize with wanting to connect with others. It is a part of my values to help people build connections and community. To some, the idea of giving a pass may sound terrible. But, not giving a pass to all technical violations—from students playing cards masked without distance, a few students eating without distance, a resident letting a non-resident into the residential spaces—would leave one without the mental energy to catch the egregious cases that would definitely lead to clusters. And in the long-term, who is to say that not giving a pass to a few people playing cards wouldn’t wind up contributing to a fraternity cluster?
But now it is finally March, and good news abounds. Vaccines are no longer a far away possibility, nor something only a few people in some faraway place receive, but a matter of course; I know more recipients than I can count on my fingers. This automatically caused me to reflect—on the guidelines, the judgments, the passes, the clusters, the death tolls—should I have done more? These guidelines aren’t going away completely so soon, and will surely persist in some form through the Fall 2021 semester. Google says the vaccines are less effective against new mutant strains, but Dr. Fauci has warned us against pessimism. Yearly booster shots may be the future in the backdrop of an always-present COVID. There is going to be no back to pre-pandemic normal, at least not this upcoming Fall semester, because of the threat of the new strains bringing us back to square one.
But, that doesn’t mean we can continue to play into COVID fatigue. Students in Ann Arbor have limited space they can call their own and limited opportunities to meet others. More students are going to be back in Fall 2021, bringing an appetite for those opportunities. The worst possible case is to continue strict guidelines across the board and restrict wide access to campus buildings. It is incumbent on the university to build upon allowing medium stakes opportunities, so that students looking for them aren’t just weighing the extremes of either staying at home or going to a gathering that is very COVID risky. The second highest day for COVID positive cases for students was in the first week of February—after the University attempted to de-densify campus after retracting its Winter 2021 plans, offering winter housing contracts on a need-based system, and rolling back in-person programs. Some students simply took advantage of the buyers market of housing sublets and upgraded from a cramped dorm room to a hangout spot with impunity to COVID violations.
The path to a “normalcy” on campus is fraught, and enforcer and enforcee are flying into grey clouds. Vaccinations will be key and so will identifying COVID fatigue as a constraint to public health goals. Hopefully we students will be patient with the University and with each other along this path.
Go Blue or Code Blue: In-Person Graduation Petition Risks Increased Spread of COVID-19
March 14, 2021 — a worldwide pandemic celebrates its first birthday. The US alone has had 30 million cases of COVID-19 so far, with a half-million deaths. That’s akin to 166 9/11s, and yet the lives of those who are no longer here to see an end to the pandemic are brushed aside in favor of loosened safety regulations. With vaccine circulation in its early stages and a clearer path to normalcy in the nation just beginning to emerge, how can we, now more than ever, justify prioritizing privileges over lives?
And yet, at the University of Michigan, students are defining the privilege of a typical graduation ceremony as a right that they deserve. A petition was created by a fellow UofM student, championing the possibility of an in-person graduation. The petition calls upon the university to revoke its earlier decision of an online 2021 commencement, with promises of masks and testing as a failsafe measure of safety to warrant such a decision reversal. It further targets the University’s public image by condemning its lack of prioritizing an in-person commencement plan and hails ivy-league school Brown as a model for the university to follow. The organizer stated that although Brown is “known for having among the strictest protocols [by] canceling sports and holding online classes”, it is still hosting an in-person graduation without family attendance. But to compare UofM to Brown without considering the broader context of state safety would be fallible. While the state of Rhode Island is ranked 19th in the percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered, Michigan comes in at a cool 39th place. Considering that vaccine distribution varies widely from state to state, is a safe in-person graduation ceremony really possible for UofM students this April?
Weighing in on the issue is a second-year Dartmouth medical student (who will be left anonymous in this article) and 2018 graduate of UofM, who denounced the petition. An in-person graduation, she estimates, has the capacity to become a super-spreader event. Michigan Medicine, as the largest Level 1 Trauma center in the greater Detroit area, is responsible for accepting patients from overwhelmed Level 2 and 3 trauma centers. As of February 18th, it has a whopping 84% occupancy rate — meaning that only 150 beds are available to serve not only Ann Arbor residents, but the greater southeast Michigan area as well. What if a 100% capacity is reached? The 2018 graduate states, “Physicians will need to prepare for triaging”. Triaging forces doctors to decide who lives and who dies, because there are no longer enough supplies to allow every patient to live. The consequences are deadly: physician suicides have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.
So the question becomes: is an in-person graduation worth it? Is it worth the possible risks it poses to both healthcare providers and the thousands of students and families gathering? Supporters of the event may argue that with proper social distancing and mask protocols, the commencement will be safe for attendees. But the U-M administration already has a track record of failing to contain the ever-spreading virus: the hybrid Fall 2020 semester saw staff and graduate instructor strikes, and more than 2,000 cases of COVID-19. How can we trust the administration to prevent another outbreak that will avoid making the New York Times headlines?
We may be able to look towards vaccines as a path towards normalcy on campus for Fall 2021, but it may very well be too late to depend on a vaccine rollout for this Spring 2021 commencement. With just three FDA-approved vaccines, two of which require a month and a half time frame before their effectiveness is maximized, most of the student body will not be vaccinated in time for a Big House graduation. As of February 22nd, only 12% of Michigan adults have been administered the first dose of the vaccine, and college students are far down the list of prioritized populations. However, that does not mean that college students are out of the woods completely. A fifth of COVID deaths have been patients aged 30 years or younger, and per the CDC, 20% of confirmed cases are among this younger population. Toss in the confirmed cases of the UK B.1.1.7 and South Africa B.188.8.131.52 strain variants in the state of Michigan, and we may have a slower recovery from this pandemic than expected. Early testing of vaccines suggests that they can handle these COVID-19 variants, but only time will tell if these strains will complicate future vaccination efforts and the eventual return to life on campus. And what could this return to campus look like? A greater likelihood of in-person classes, and re-opening of university facilities, such as libraries, recreation buildings, and student dorms, at an increased capacity. But larger events such as tailgating or full occupancy at the Big House may not be in the cards for UM students in the upcoming semester.
What does all this mean? That we should be cautious, follow the public health guidelines, and rightfully commiserate the events and milestones that pass by us in a blur of pixels and unstable internet connection. We cannot unravel the months of sacrifices made by frontline workers and fellow students by prioritizing in-person graduation over the lives of others. The hope? That continued vaccine rollout may one day soon see fellow Wolverines returning to their home away from home on campus, ready to build back the community — one vaccine at a time.