Flint, Michigan—The shadow of uncertainty cast by the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Flint’s colleges and universities to consider possible alternatives to traditional face-to-face classes in the fall semester.
Though no such plan has been announced by any of the institutions in the city, others across Michigan like MSU and Wayne State have gone on the record talking about the possibility of making the fall semester a mix of online and on-campus classes.
Despite this, Mark Schlissel, president of The University of Michigan’s three campuses in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn, has said he hopes UM’s campuses will be open in the fall if the situation allows it.
At The University of Michigan-Flint however, things are not so certain. Though the two campuses share the same block-M logo, UM-Flint administrators are working on their own plans for the school.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions about this and the plan is to be prepared for any possibility,” said Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Keith Moreland. At this point he said, no substantive decisions have been made regarding plans for the fall semester.
While virtually every aspect of how a university operates has had to change during the COVID-19 outbreak, some problems have been harder to address than others.
A large concern for some students during the start of online classes was the access to the technology necessary for online learning. Before the state-issued stay-at-home order, UM-Flint allowed students access to computer labs where they could complete their coursework as necessary.
“And then that option went away,” said Moreland, referring to the implementation of the stay-at-home order. Moreland said students who then needed laptops to take home were lent one by the school.
UM-Flint also has a large international student population. Due to flight restrictions, some have not been able to return to their home countries and have been forced to stay in the U.S.
Though the university has accommodated those students remaining in Michigan by providing housing in its dorms, many of them are facing a countdown before their students visas, which expire 60 days after graduation, are nullified.
Those who were able to return to their home countries faced upwards of 10 hour time differences when trying to participate in online classes.
Regardless of nationality or financial status, all students had to learn to cope with what was, for many, a completely new schedule and style of learning.
To address this, the university instituted a pass/fail grading system. This system allowed for students whose grades suffered due to the transition to avoid lowering their grade point average by choosing pass or fail for a class instead of receiving an A-E letter grade.
Some students, like Samantha Uptmor, Student Government president and senior political science major, feel the measures taken by the university were appropriate given the situation. “I think the most important thing that I’ve seen the university has really been trying to do is communicate as much information as they can,” she said.
Like many, Uptmor’s ideal situation would be to return to physical classes in the fall. She feels that’s the way she learns best.
“I love being in the classroom, I feel like I’m held more accountable by my professors. I actually pay attention and participate in discussions.” Uptmor said.
To her, online classes are harder to engage with, leading to an often beleaguered learning experience.
“Online it just feels a little bit more lax and more optional … we still have that feeling where it’s not in the setting that I’m used to,” she said.
Now that the element of surprise accompanying COVID-19 related adjustments has passed, UM-Flint has to find long term solutions to many of these problems.
According to Moreland, many of these decisions rely on instructions from the government. “It’s very conceivable that there could be some sort of…government guidelines…that require some level of social distancing,” Moreland said.
He also said a lot of the questions regarding how the fall semester will be carried out are “very challenging,” and that he and other administrators “recognize that the later those decisions are made, the more difficult it is to implement.”
While UM-Flint has decided to shift its spring and summer semesters to online, other institutions in the city like Kettering University are planning on returning to campus as soon as this summer.
“As of right now, we do plan to return to in-class instruction for the Summer Term which begins July 13. Because this is an unpredictable situation that evolves daily, the University COVID-19 Response Team is outlining every possible scenario to ensure that when students and employees do return it is to a safe environment,” said Melanie Bass, Kettering’s Director of Communications.
Kettering students in particular have seen major changes in their schedule. Because of the university’s co-op program, students at Kettering don’t experience the usual 16 week semester. Rather, they rotate between 11-week long terms in which they either attend classes at Kettering or work jobs in their field of study.
Jack Vollmar, a junior mechanical engineering major at Kettering, was supposed to start his 11 week term working at Magna International in Novi. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak however, he currently finds himself quarantined at home.
“I see the co-op program as much as a learning experience as school, if not more. When I’m on work term … I’m really gaining experience and learning.” Vollmar said.
As far as safety is concerned however, Vollmar said Kettering’s reaction to the outbreak was as student-friendly as it could have been. “ I think they (did) a very good job. I think president McMahan, as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding…he was very prompt in informing us via email. We would get an email pretty regularly outlining the steps they were taking and the precautions they were taking,” Vollmar said. “I just felt that the leadership at Kettering would do anything in their power to make sure everybody was safe.”
According to Bass, not all students have had to sacrifice their co-op terms. “The vast majority of our students have been able to shift to remote work assignments or to other opportunities within their employer environments.”
For students like Vollmar, the university has kept in touch with them, making sure future co-op opportunities are secured. In addition, a student emergency fund has been set up to provide additional aid to students, said Bass.
As for returning to regular operations, Kettering plans to slowly start re-introducing employees to the campus throughout the month of June. “Currently, most Kettering employees are working remotely and will continue to do so through May, during which we will finalize plans for a phased return to on-campus work for June,” said Bass.
Like these institutions, Mott Community College is still in talks regarding their fall semester. Though their summer term is online, Dawn Hibbard, Mott’s communication specialist said, “details on returning to campus physically are being explored and decided upon.”
Students within Mott’s apprenticeship programs are concerned about what an online semester will look like for them. Since many of these programs are based around lab work and require a physical presence, these students don’t know how they’ll be able to progress in their studies.
“Not everyone learns the same way … for the kids that are taking this course that are very strongly into hands-on learning, it’s gonna be harder for them,” said Jarrod Wurtz, an apprentice in Mott’s Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration program.
“For the most part, these people are taking these courses, these classes, to get this hands-on experience before they go into the field. It’ll be a very hard transition if we are going online based only.”
As institutions continue to work on making the decisions necessary to operate in the fall, many aspects of what a university education is will be put in question. Students, staff and faculty from universities and colleges around the country will have to live with the consequences of these decisions as will the communities these institutions inhabit.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty,” Moreland said. “Even now some aspects of the economy and interaction in public are opening up slightly, maybe it’s going to open up a lot more at the end of May 15, but who knows? We just don’t know. It’s an urgent point.”