Throughout the United States, how universities and schools will open in the fall has been a point of uncertainty since the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cessation of in-person classes in March. How to teach and house students, while adhering to physical distancing guidelines, has proven a logistical nightmare for universities. Health experts have questioned whether re-opening, even with adherence to physical distancing guidelines, is worth the potential health risks for both students and instructors.
Eastern Michigan University plans to re-open on August 31, following COVID-19 guidelines mandated at the local, state, and federal level. On August 7, the university released the “Safe Return to Campus Plan” in a campus update from the Office of the President. The 20 page document entails the University’s “phased return to campus” for both students and university employees.
Section VI of the the "Safe Return to Campus Plan" details the university's "layered approach” to mitigate and prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The approach to campus public health standards, called EMUSAFE actions (also EMU Safe or #EMUSAFE) will be enforced much the same for both students and employees with guidelines regarding: daily screenings, COVID-19 testing, physical distancing, face coverings, hygiene, gloves, cleaning and disinfecting, ventilation, class instruction, dining, housing, athletics, travel, and visitor & events.
University Public Health Work Group
The EMUSAFE actions were developed by the university’s Public Health Work Group or PHWG, which was convened by the Office of the President in early May. The group, consisting of internal university staff, was tasked with proposing health standards in order to resume in-person classes and other operations in the fall, under varying scenarios regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic. PHWG recommendations were developed regarding prevention and containment of COVID-19 in relation to "screening and testing, availability of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), personal hygiene practice, physical distancing, environmental measures [such as cleaning and disinfecting] . . . and ensuring readiness of campus infrastructure and local health care and public health systems.”
The PHWG released a final report of recommended mitigation strategies for COVID-19 on July 23. An in-depth implementation of COVID-19 guidelines can be read in the university’s "COVID-19 Preparedness, Response, and Safe Return to Campus Operations Plan” which was released on July 15.
In-Person Campus Attendance
All students attending in-person classes in the Fall must adhere to physical distancing (also called social distancing) guidelines. This means students must maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another when practical. This rule extends to all individuals on university grounds who are not part of the same household.
In a campus update from the Office of the President on July 31, it was announced that all classroom spaces that will be used during the fall semester had been mapped by Geographic Information System (GIS) students and faculty. The purpose of the endeavor was “to determine the layout of each classroom to allow for six-foot distancing.” University president James Smith further explained in an interview with EMU Today TV host, professor Mike S. Lee, that classes may have “‘Xs’ on the floor for not-movement [sic] of furniture.” This demarcation will help to ensure physical distancing for seated students as well for the instructor via placement of the instructor’s lectern. In some cases, classrooms have been expanded, through the removal of walls, in order to achieve proper physical distancing. Plexiglass shields has been added to areas where students and staff may have frequent interaction such as at points of sale for dining operations, building entry check-in points, and panes of plexiglass have been introduced to lecture halls in front of instructor desks.
Other on-campus changes include designated entry and exit points for buildings and classrooms, restricted elevator capacities, repurposing of rooms, such as the Student Center ballroom as classrooms, and signage throughout campus regarding hallway traffic flow and physical distancing guidelines. Intramural and recreational facilities, such as the REC-IM, will be closed for the fall semester, and communal areas in residence halls will have reduced seating.
In their final report, released July 23, the PHWG released recommendation regarding ventilation in campus buildings. Changes made my the university include increases in fresh air utilized indoors by maximizing campus Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems.
When asked for an estimated total cost for renovations given the extensive structural changes implemented around campus to encourage social distancing Geoff Larcom, the executive director of media relations at EMU, answered that a total has yet to be determined as changes are continuing to be implemented.
In order to maintain physical distancing on campus, online courses have increased to a broader array of classes for the fall semester. When asked about the percentage breakdown of in-person to hybrid and online classes Smith said that a definitive answer would be known by this Friday, August 7.
According to President Smith, college and department level administration has been the one to decide which “classes comport best to online versus in-person.” Smith went on to say that it was likely that less than 50% of coursework would be in person, stating, “we just don’t have the classroom space” in regards to physical distancing.
“Will we hit 60-40? I’m not even sure of that. I think it’s going to be a bit less,” Smith told Lee during the interview. “We’ll have some hybrid classes where occasionally we’ll be in-person but more often we’ll be online, but then of course we’ll have the all-online option and the all-in-person option.” Most lab courses will be taught in-person due to their hands-on nature.
According to the PHWG recommendations, COVID-19 testing is not required for the safe return of students and university employees to on-campus classes and other operations.
In addition to adherence to physical distancing guidelines, there will be a daily wellness screening or “check in” process for all students and employees. The screening will be used to identify any possible symptoms of COVID-19 present in those with on-campus course work or employment.
The process will consist of a questionnaire that can be accessed via a web-based URL and completed by computer or mobile device. Questions will cover COVID-19 symptoms listed in the “Safe Return to Campus Plan,” including:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty of breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Manned check-in desks outside of designated building entryways will be used to verify completion of the screening. Check-in stations will be available Monday through Thursday, from 8 am to 5 pm. Those without a smartphone or mobile device will be granted a paper check-in form which can then be stamped at the station.
For those who screen negative for COVID-19 symptoms, the screening application or web based URL will turn green, signifying that it is safe and permissible to be on campus. Those who screen positive for symptoms will have their screening app/URL turn red. Those experiencing symptoms are not permitted on campus and are asked to contact their instructors and/or employment supervisors. If experiencing symptoms the response will then be referred to the College of Health and Human Service (CHHS) Telehealth Clinic which will then follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention algorithm for further screening. Further screening will determine whether the individual may return to campus or is referred for "testing, urgent care, or their own health care provider."
It was recommended by the PHWG that for employees who screen positive for symptoms, a notification or tracking system be activated providing any necessary information to university Human Resources.
When asked for clarification regarding whether the university will implement further testing for individuals who may transmit the virus without symptoms (known as asymptomatic shedding), Larcom explained that additional circumstantial testing may occur. Larcom further clarified, however, that “wide-scale testing beyond individuals who are symptomatic or at higher risk of exposure is not recommended by government health agencies," and is therefore not recommended by the University’s Public Health Work Group.
Housing and Dining
For students who plan to live on campus in the fall semester, single room housing options have been increased in order to allow for physical distancing. Announced on June 11, for the fall semester EMU would introduce a “Single Room Guarantee,” granting a single room, or a room without a roommate, to any student who requested one. The guarantee, in addition to an increased availability of single room housing, discounts the price for single rooms by $1,700 annually. Single rooms typically cost an average of $2,500 more annually than the shared or double option, however with the guarantee single rooms will only cost an additional $800 compared to the shared option.
Buell and Phelps Residence Halls, which were to be closed for the fall semester for renovation, will now be in use in order to accommodate the Single Room Guarantee with renovations suspended. Additionally all rooms in Wise Hall have been converted to single rooms in order to limit the usage of communal bathrooms. For the 2020-21 academic year Downing Hall will be the only residence hall for Honors College students, however the hall will be unable to house all Honors College students.
Fall move-in has been extended by multiple days to ensure that students and guests abide by physical distancing guidelines. A specific date and time will be assigned to all students who plan to move in in the fall. Students are allowed two guests during move-in, with all in attendance required to undergo COVID-19 screening.
All availability has been filled for the 601 single room options open to students who plan to live on campus in the fall, with a waitlist for possible openings. More information from the Echo regarding fall housing can be found here: EMU answers questions about fall 2020 housing.
According to the Dining Path to Re-Open Plan, the university will take a “Tier 2 mid-distancing” approach to dining at the start of the fall semester. Changes to dining may include that services go cashless (at most locations), have plexiglass installations at “high contact spaces”, facial covering requirements, streamlined menus, contactless interactions, occupancy limits, service reductions, among other changes.
Masks and Facial Coverings
All persons on campus grounds and in campus buildings will be required to wear a facial covering or mask that covers both the nose and mouth, unless granted approved accommodation. If in an isolated space, such as a living area or private office with the door closed, a facial covering is not required.
In the final report of PHWG, it states, “In the classroom environment, faculty are required to wear a face covering or conduct lectures from behind a plexiglass barrier."
For students currently enrolled in the summer semester, face masks are available at campus building check-in stations. In the fall, multiple campus locations will provide masks for students and staffs.Students who believe they may be medically exempt from wearing a face covering are asked to contact the university Disability Resource Center. Student employees, who will work on campus during the fall, who may medically exempt from wearing a mask, while working, are asked to contact University Human Resources. Face coverings cannot be substituted by face shields.