Last week, Eastern Michigan University announced that move-in for on-campus housing would be delayed by three weeks, until Sept. 17, and most in-person instruction will be online during this time. Students were originally expected to start moving in Aug. 27.
The Monday morning announcement was criticized by some students and parents for its last-minute nature, which caught many students and university staff off guard.
Universities around the country struggle to reopen amid coronavirus pandemic
The decision to delay move-in was made for three primary reasons. First, university administration had assessed other university openings around the country and reviewed the major challenges those institutions have faced. Efforts to discourage large gatherings and minimize the spread of COVID-19 had failed across the country as universities welcomed students back to campus.
The University of Michigan, for example, started move-in week on Aug. 24 and restrictions intended to mitigate potential COVID-19 exposure often went unenforced, according to the Michigan Daily. A survey of incoming University of Michigan freshmen found that 31% would be very or somewhat comfortable going to a house party during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of move-in, Michigan Daily reporters spotted “multiple” parties near UM’s campus.
Similarly at the University of North Georgia, hundreds of students were filmed partying at an off-campus apartment complex. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had to move undergraduate instruction online as at least 177 students had tested positive for COVID-19 following outbreaks linked to sorority and fraternity parties.
The University of Notre Dame suspended in-person instruction after 147 students tested positive for coronavirus. Most cases were identified as seniors living off-campus who were infected at social gatherings.
“This has been an absolute disaster” read the headline of an article from The Crimson White, University of Alabama’s student newspaper. At the institution some students were forced to leave their dorms so the university could expand the number of COVID-19 isolation rooms. At the University of Alabama’s central campus in Tuscaloosa the COVID-19 outbreak is considered one of the worst in the country, with over 1,200 students having tested for coronavirus, according to the the University’s COVID-19 Dashboard. The list of campus outbreaks goes on, as The New York Times has identified over 20,000 COVID-19 cases on college campuses since late July.
As more and more college campuses welcomed back students through August, it was with the context of stories like these that EMU officials made the decision to postpone on-campus move-in by three weeks.
The second reason for delaying move-in was that it allowed for a 14-day period before students move in after the Labor Day weekend. Health officials suspect the holiday weekend could cause another increase in COVID-19 cases, similar to what happened after Memorial Day. The three week delay accounts for a 14-day period after Labor Day. This allows student to self-isolate at home for that period after possible exposure to the virus.
Third, President James Smith said in the email announcement that the delay would also allow the university to establish expanded COVID-19 testing protocols for staff and students on campus.
"New testing providers and processes are increasing rapidly and we are working toward further testing of students and other members of our community as part of our planning for the return to limited on-campus activities on September 21," the email said.
EMU students and parents frustrated with the last-minute decision to delay fall move-in
The announcement to delay fall move-in was made on Monday, Aug. 24, shortly after 8:00 a.m., just three days before EMU was set to bring students back to campus. Over 200 students had been approved for early move-in and had already moved in.
One group of students approved for early move-in were members of the marching band, which was scheduled to hold an in-person band camp later that week.
Claire Eastman, the step-mother of one such student, described the chaotic day that followed the decision.
After leaving their hometown of Columbus, Ohio at 7:00 a.m. on Aug. 24, they had stopped just after 9:00 a.m. During the Eastman’s son, a freshman at EMU, saw the email from President Smith.
Following that email, Eastman’s son received a separate text message regarding the band program. The text read that band camp was still on as planned and told student to continue to campus. The announcement from Smith was a surprise to officials running band camp as well.
“Please do not worry and proceed as we have planned until you hear otherwise. As of this moment, move-ins, registration, and camp continue. Stay tuned, we are communicating as fast as we can - this was news to us too,“ the text message to band students read.
After arriving to campus and moving in, Eastman’s son was notified that band camp check-in, which had been scheduled for that day, had been cancelled, just hours before it was set to take place. The cancellation was announced at 12:07 p.m., with promise of more information to come. At that point, band camp was still scheduled to take place throughout the week, but one hour later, band camp was officially cancelled at 1:22 p.m. All students that had moved in early were allowed to stay on campus, or return to their permanent residences for the delayed period.
The last-minute decision caught students off guard too; many had already had all of their belongings packed up for the big move, which for most students was just 3-5 days away from the announcement. After a summer spent in quarantine and a subsequent hyping up of returning to campus, students were understandably frustrated and disappointed.
EMU Student Body President Ethan Smith said he was personally disappointed by the decision but understands that difficult decisions need to be made to protect student health.
“I share the frustration of a lot of students that the decision to push back the move-in date was made a little bit last minute, but I still think that the fact that they pushed it back means that they just have some last things they need to do to be prepared for a semester of in-person instruction,” Smith said in an interview with the Echo.
Smith said that student government supported the reopening guidelines published by the university and that they trust the university to decide when it is safe to bring students back.
“I do believe that as long as students are responsible, they understand both the risks they’re taking, and their responsibilities to their fellow students; they wear a mask, they social distance, I think it can be done safely. But that’s really going to come down to the choices the student body makes in order to keep each other safe.”
EMU student Nicholas Pena said he sees the Monday morning email as an excuse from James Smith, putting blame onto the students. He said that mentioning how colleges across the country have struggled with limiting social gatherings and parties places blame on students.
“In reality, the mere thought of gathering a student population near 22,000 and maintaining proper social distancing and health guidelines was an option that had a slim to none chance of succeeding and a very large chance of having catastrophic outcomes,” Pena said in an interview with the Echo.
Pena says with the announcement and the cancellation of the marching band season, the school year is meaningless and now lacks the joy of what EMU used to mean to him. As a second year music education major with fully online classes, credits will be hard to attain for him.
Grace Beebe, a freshman at EMU, was one hour away from her move-in when the announcement was made.
She spent two days in her dorm frantically trying to get information from housing staff, who had little more information than what was available publicly to students. Beebe was eventually told she could leave her belongings in the dorm, return home, and still receive a housing reimbursement.
These frustrations reflect the challenge of living in a global pandemic. There are no perfect answers; public health risks must be weighed against the desire for normality.
EMU sophomore and Echo columnist Chelsea Bacci started a petition asking EMU to reconsider the decision and let students self quarantine in the dorms, like students at New York University and Syracuse.
Bacci said she started the petition due to frustration after reading the email. Bacci works as a desk assistant in the residence halls and was on campus at time of move-in delay announcement. She believes that students need a separate space to be able to complete class work. The petition has received 562 signatures as of Sept. 2.
Ethan Smith said that going forward, he would like the university to deliver on the timeline it gives students.
“It wasn’t a secret to anybody that the fall semester was going to be starting soon. So it’s disappointing to me that they didn’t feel they were prepared to have a safe move-in experience at this time,” Smith said. “But I am grateful that they decided to prioritize student safety and make the difficult decision to push back the move-in and make sure that there is a safe environment on campus for students to come move into.”
EMU administration has recognized the short time-frame of the decision and the resulting criticism, while expressing the difficulty of making decisions amid fast-changing circumstances and information. Above all else, EMU is taking health risks to students and staff seriously.
“[The decision] was [made] out of the utmost concern for the health, safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” President James Smith said in a statement. “The continuing outbreaks of COVID-19 over the past week at universities around the region and country reinforce that the decision to delay move-in until September 17 and transition to online classes through September 20 was, for us, absolutely the right thing to do.”
“We have stated from the beginning our intent to closely monitor the fast-changing impact of this disease and the need to adjust our plans on short notice to new information and government/public health guidance. This decision reflects that continued careful attention,” the statement continues.
EMU still plans on bringing students back to campus starting on Sept. 17. It is expected that 20-25% of fall instruction will take place in-person following the delay.