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EMU President Smith Explains Last Minute Changes For Start Of Fall Semester Due To COVID-19 Concerns

James Smith
Eastern Michigan University

Back to school plans continue to evolve due to our global health crisis with Eastern Michigan University making some last minute changes for the fall semester announced Monday, August 24th.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talked with EMU president Dr. James Smith, who details the changes and the impact on students and faculty.

The in-person aspect of the fall semester at EMU is being delayed 3 weeks, due to concerns about the possible spread of COVID-19.

The semester will begin as planned on August 31st, but the majority of classes will take place online vs. in-person, and on-campus move-in will be delayed by three weeks as well.  

President Smith says some students are already on campus, and they will be accomodated.  He added some international students cannot delay their flights or those traveling from across the country may already be on their way to campus and will be allowed to move in and live on campus as well.

President Smith said they also want to see the impact of Labor Day travel on any spread of the virus, so waiting three weeks will allow them to gauge that and the impact on University staff and students.  The university president said they've had "deep discussions"  with medical experts about what the best of the science determinations are in coming to this decision.  Some students will see a partial dining refund due to the delay. 

The EMU president said they are ready for the anticipated questions that may follow this announcement with university deans and his office prepared to address any concerns.

Below is the president's full announcement:

To the Eastern Michigan University community:

Over the course of the last 72 hours, I have made the exceptionally difficult decision to delay our on-campus move-in for three weeks, until September 17, 2020 (move-in was scheduled to begin this Thursday, August 27).  We will begin classes as scheduled on August 31 but will transition the small number of classes that were scheduled to be in-person to a near fully online schedule through September 20. 

The decision follows an assessment of the reopening of campuses across the country that has shown increased outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and challenges in limiting social gatherings and parties. 

From the outset of our planning process, we have stated that the health, safety and well-being of our campus community were paramount in our actions.  We also made clear that we would evolve our planning in order to be responsive to the changing science, data, government directives and other critical information regarding COVID-19.

I am taking this action with the support of the University’s Executive Council, based on the recommendation of our Faculty Senate Executive Committee, and after a careful analysis of our on-campus preparations for fall, and -- in particular -- a benchmarking review of challenges facing our peer institutions attempting to open both in Michigan and around the country.  Provost Longworth and I have both spoken to some members of the University’s Public Health Advisory Committee and they have offered full support for this decision as well.

A small number of students such as international students, some student-athletes and other individuals have already moved in to residence halls and will be allowed to remain should they wish to do so during this time.  Additionally, some students who plan to live in campus housing may have unique circumstances that would call for them to move into their campus housing sooner than provided under this revised schedule.  Such requests will be granted in rare instances, on a case-by-case basis. Students living in residence halls will receive additional information via email about how to request such an accommodation.

Students who have made housing and dining deposits or payments will receive a full pro-rata credit of those deposits and payments for the time period between their original move-in day and their new move-in day

In-person, on-campus courses were scheduled to make up approximately 20-25 percent of our classes for the fall semester.  In concert with today’s announcement, we will transition most in-person classes to an online format for the start of the semester on August 31 through September 20

There will be a small number of exceptions to allow in-person instruction primarily within the School of Nursing and other Schools in the College of Health and Human Services.  Students will be notified individually of any exceptions as soon as possible and should check their email accounts for further direction between now and August 31.

I understand the challenge and hardship that the uncertainty of all matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic has created for students, their families, and our faculty and staff.  All of our campus resources at this time are being directed to working closely with students affected by this decision to help them through the transition. 

Additional factors in our decision to delay move-in and the start of in-person classes were the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend and its potential impact on community case numbers, as well as an expected increase in the capacity for increased rapid and reliable COVID-19 testing kits within the month.  

Health officials predict another spike in cases following the long Labor Day holiday weekend, not unlike what was experienced following Memorial Day weekend when the number of positive cases increased dramatically in early to mid June.  The three-week delay in on-campus activity accommodates the 14-day incubation period for cases materializing during Labor Day weekend and allows us to have a safer move-in environment. 

The delay also provides us with additional time to identify and establish expanded COVID-19 testing protocols beyond the testing of all students moving in to residence halls that is currently underway.  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.  Students living in residence halls who are participating in the testing that is underway will receive additional instructions shortly from the University’s Office of Housing and Residence Life.

Time and data have proven invaluable in the fight against this disease.  Delaying move-in will provide valuable information regarding the spread of the disease on college campuses, both in Michigan and across the country.  It will allow us additional time to work with local officials around enforcement and increased education.  It also will tell us whether further protective actions may be necessary, and inform us of other strategies that may be proving successful in the county and elsewhere.

Without knowing the future, I cannot be 100 percent certain of any decision concerning this disease but a three-week delay in move-in is highly prudent and in the best interests of our campus.  It gives us increased access to testing resources and vital information, as the semester begins; while continuing to place our emphasis where it belongs: on our students’ health and that of our entire University community.   

James Smith, Ph.D.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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