The Eastern Michigan University’s American Association of University Professors released a statement Aug. 26 expressing disappointment and concern over the university’s COVID-19 safety protocols for the fall semester.
One major cause of concern among association members is the university’s lack of COVID-19 vaccination requirements. Nearby universities such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University have all implemented a vaccine mandate for all students, faculty, and employees who plan to be on campus.
“EMU's response to the virus has failed to protect students & faculty adequately, because it has not mandated vaccinations for all people who come to campus,” EMU-AAUP Vice President Mark Higbee said in an email. “The superior efficacy of vaccinations was already known by early summer.”
EMU has a steering committee of faculty and administrators who have reviewed and discussed safety practices and implementation strategies since the early stages of the pandemic. University officials said part of the committee’s decision-making process included direct and ongoing communication with the Washtenaw County Health Department to ensure that the university is meeting safety protocols, as well as having the health department review and approve practices and protocols outlined in the university’s Safe Return-to-Campus Plan.
However, the university’s plan does not require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all students who come to campus, only for those who live in on-campus housing and participate in certain on-campus activities. Instead, some unvaccinated students who participate in on-campus classes or programs can choose to undergo weekly testing. Employees at EMU are also not required to be vaccinated.
The university gave students a deadline of Sept. 30 to turn in their vaccination status, and those who did not get vaccinated began or continued mandated weekly testing.
“The robust and layered safety practices we have in place have resulted in Eastern having among the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases among the universities in Michigan,” EMU said in an email. “Our practices are working and we are proud of the overall effort and commitment to safe practices across the campus.”
The other main union for instructors and library staff at EMU, Eastern Michigan University’s Federation of Teachers, has similar concerns over the lack of COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
“EMUFT and EMU-AAUP have polled their members, and a majority in both unions support a campus-wide vaccine mandate,” according to a statement from EMU-AAUP.
Recently, EMU was unable to provide the Echo with COVID-19 vaccination data regarding the vaccination status of commuter students. However, the university was able to provide vaccination data regarding students who live on campus; more than 93% of students have received the vaccine.
"We have some students fully on campus, such as those in residential housing, others who come to campus once in a while as part of hybrid classes or to participate in extracurricular programs, and still others that are fully online and do not visit campus at all,“ EMU said in an email. "Given these respective and distinct groups of students, and the different ways in which our vaccination protocols affect each of them, we have prioritized the data analysis of those students -- our residential students -- who are most directly on campus in a full-time capacity as that population is most at risk for COVID-19 spread that would impact our campus community."
“As of Oct. 6, 2021, more than 93% of housing residents have received the vaccine, with the vast majority being fully vaccinated,” EMU said. “We understand and appreciate the interest in having additional data available beyond the numbers we provided for students who live in on-campus housing and we plan to share additional data in future weeks after students have a chance to comply with the testing requirements.”
EMU’s own policy requires the testing of all students who are unvaccinated.
Higbee said the failure to keep track of the numbers, who is vaccinated and who isn’t, is part of the problem.
“The university should have a system to count everybody,“ Higbee said. “They have a public health policy that overlooks the very first requirement of public health, and that requirement is that you count what matters, you systematically count. It would be so much simpler if they mandated vaccinations for everybody, and then you just proved you're vaccinated... So they've chosen to make it complicated.”
Political science professor Richard Stahler-Sholk is another faculty member who has expressed concern over the policy.
“As a school with mostly commuting students, it would be hard to keep good statistics on COVID testing and positive results, since many students will probably do their testing off campus, and there’s no reliable way to to make sure they are reporting the results to the university,” Stahler-Sholk said in an email.
In addition, campus community vaccination data is absent from EMU’s COVID dashboard, unlike U-M and MSU who have released that data on their respective COVID dashboards.
“I think that it should be widely known, especially because the majority of our campus are commuters,” EMU junior Jessica Kwek said. “They [EMU] should at least let people who are vaccinated and who are living on campus know. They have the right to know how much risk they’re taking by being here.”
Kwek also raised concerns that the daily COVID passes are not being implemented properly throughout the school.
“I think one of the biggest problems is how easy it is to lie on it,” Kwek said. “There have been times where I’m on campus all day long and I go into four or five different buildings, and nobody is ever there to check the screen.
“Even if they are consistently checking them, there’s really no way to prove that people are actually being honest or knowing if they’re actually keeping people from being on campus who have COVID or who have been exposed,” Kwek said.
EMU’s COVID daily pass is an online health screening that students and staff must complete prior to arriving on campus. Several checkpoints are setup at most building entrances on campus, and anyone entering one of these buildings is required to show their pass, however many checkpoints go unmanned for hours at a time.
This practice consists of students and staff self-reporting online for common symptoms of COVID-19, whether they have traveled domestically or internationally in the past 10 days, whether they have tested positive for the virus or been exposed to an infected individual, and whether they are vaccinated or not.
In the screening, students and employees are allowed to decline to respond regarding their vaccination status.
“It is important to understand that health screenings are one element but they must be complemented by the many other processes the university has in place,” EMU said.
This includes regular, free on-campus testing, widespread vaccinations and a continuation of vaccination pop-up clinics on campus, mandatory mask wearing inside university buildings, maintaining physical distance, and more.
One report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the effectiveness of COVID-19 symptom screening in schools is not well known. The study found that symptom screening for COVID might not be effective in identifying the virus in asymptomatic individuals. Asymptomatic individuals might carry the virus for the infectious disease without displaying symptoms, increasing the chances of spreading the virus to other individuals.
In addition, the study found that COVID-19 symptom screening could exclude individuals who have chronic medical illnesses due to the similarities of symptoms.
EMU junior and campus resident Karla Guillen said she believes the current EMU COVID policies are sufficient in conducting a safe campus and classroom environment.
“When it comes to living here on campus, I feel pretty safe since it [COVID-19 vaccination] is mandated,” Guillen said. “I mean, I know we don’t know the exact number of people vaccinated, but if they all follow the mandate, which a majority of them do, or at least I hope they do, then I feel safe.
“In terms of being in classes around people who don’t have it [COVID-19 vaccination] mandated for them, I’d say I feel pretty comfortable, especially with the masks,‘“ Guillen said. “Perhaps it’d be different if we didn’t have that, but we do, and I feel pretty safe.”
Although EMU claims to have the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases in a recent campus update, Higbee still fears the threat of evolving COVID-19 variants.
“The EMU stance increases the virus’s chance of evolving into a worse variant,” Higbee said. “EMU's policy violates EMU's teaching mission as a university, since it is based on the falsehood that vaccinations are not the best possible, by far, response to the pandemic.”
About 14,000 EMU students and faculty commute to and from the university from their homes, potentially increasing the risk of COVID-19 exposure, especially from those who might not be vaccinated.
The most recent COVID-19, EMU dashboard data from Oct. 20-26, states that out of 988 COVID-19 tests administered by the university, eight were positive. The total number of positive COVID-19 cases for on-campus and off-campus students, including employees, was 26.
The total number of COVID-19 tests taken by students off-campus is unknown, as well as their results.
Washtenaw County currently has a high COVID-19 transmission rate, according to the CDC. From Oct. 22-28, there were 577 confirmed cases.