Instructional Update from Provost Collins
January 5, 2022
It is very challenging to be starting another new semester with COVID-19 still surging, while grappling with associated concerns about health, navigating childcare, a shift to remote education in AAPS this week, flight delays, and more. Thank you for your continued commitment to our community and mission in these difficult times.
I write specifically to you, our faculty and graduate student instructors, in response to the concerns and questions many have raised about our decision to provide a residential experience for our students in W22, offering as much in-person instruction as possible. Concerns about health and safety are understandable in such uncertain times. This message is intended to address some of the most common questions we are hearing as classes begin this week.
The video from Dr. Preeti Malani, U-M’s Chief Health Officer, provides some context and framing.
Why did we decide to begin the semester in person, rather than with a couple of weeks of remote instruction?
The decision to proceed with an in-person start to the semester was not made lightly. Monitoring the ever-evolving context of the pandemic is an ongoing process, involving collaborative work among the Campus Health Response Committee, executive team, deans and other academic leaders, and the Washtenaw County Health Department. Our shared goal is to continue to provide the best possible educational experiences for our students as safely as we can and largely in person.
- We are in a very different place from where we were a year ago. While we are still learning, we know much more about the virus, and have documented evidence of the effectiveness of vaccination (including boosters) and masking for mitigating disease spread and minimizing the severity of illness. Our significantly increased testing capacity is also an important tool for limiting spread.
- Existing evidence indicates that our classrooms are safe for instructors and students, given the protocols in place.
- We’ve seen first-hand how valuable in-person engagement is for our students – in terms of wellness as well as the quality of teaching and learning. We are deeply concerned about the isolation and mental health problems associated with online-only activities. Furthermore, remote instruction may provide less structure and may lead to more travel and greater risk.
- Going remote for two weeks would be arbitrary. It is unclear what will be better two weeks from now, given that COVID-19 continues to evolve and is becoming endemic. Our decision-making is guided by science and advice from our experts; our recent decisions hinge on a high vaccination rate, effective masking requirement, sufficient testing capacity and our ability to require and provide boosters in our community.
- The University adopted a number of additional mitigation measures, in advance of starting a residential winter term. These are outlined in our December 28 message and January 3 message.
- We recognize that many uncertainties remain and that the on-going course of the pandemic is difficult to predict. We will continue to monitor response metrics, and will adjust mitigation strategies proactively.
COVID cases are surging; even some fully vaccinated people are getting really sick. Do vaccines and masking really work against Omicron?
As Dr. Malani and her co-authors noted in a December 22 JAMA Viewpoint article: “[m]ost current hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated individuals; however, so-called breakthrough infections are increasingly being diagnosed among individuals who have been fully vaccinated and even among those who have received booster doses. To date, most of these infections have not resulted in clinically severe disease. While vaccination does not prevent all infections, thus far vaccination has provided protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. The degree to which current vaccines will be protective against severe illness related to the Omicron variant will require careful monitoring.”
Michigan Medicine hospitalization data reflect this. Most patients hospitalized, in intensive care, and on ventilators with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Almost everyone who is vaccinated and in the hospital for COVID also has serious underlying medical conditions.
Vaccination continues to protect against severe complications from COVID-19, even though vaccination effectiveness against symptomatic infection with Omicron is somewhat diminished. Booster doses of vaccines improve vaccine effectiveness, although precise estimates of protection against infection (including mild and asymptomatic infection) are not yet available. As described in the January 4 message from Drs. Ernst and Malani, boosters will be available on campus at a number of pop-up clinics both this week and next.
Although we know that Omicron is more transmissible and has the potential for evading the immune protection provided by antibodies from vaccines or prior SARS-CoV-2 infection, it is not a smaller particle than prior variants, and there is no evidence to suggest that masks are less protective than they were in the fall. Thus, a high quality, properly fitting mask will continue to provide strong protection. We do suggest that our community members upgrade their masks, such as to surgical or KN95 masks if feasible. Individuals can get masks at all Community Sampling and Tracking Program testing locations while supplies last.
How safe are our classrooms and how do we know this?
Data from Fall 2021 shows U-M classrooms to be one of the safest environments in our community with low (if any) transmission noted. We constantly monitor the characteristics of spread in our community. Key sources of data include information from contact tracing as well as wastewater analysis. It is indoor social gatherings without consistent mask usage that continue to be the most prevalent driver of spread.
Our campus remains one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the state and the country. As shown on the campus dashboard, 98% of our faculty and students are fully vaccinated, and those with approved exemptions from the vaccine mandate participate in required weekly testing. The addition of a vaccine booster requirement, announced in late December, will only strengthen our already strong vaccine protections.
As discussed above, masking also remains a very effective tool in preventing spread and is an important part of our mitigation strategy. Allowing food and drink in classrooms results in temporary unmasking, increases risk, and should be minimized.
U-M Facilities & Operations has taken steps to ensure high-quality ventilation in our classrooms to provide safe classroom environments. Our systems are designed to meet or exceed the Michigan Building Code requirements for airflow at maximum occupancy. For more detailed information, please see this
We are continuing to monitor classroom spaces closely, and will make any necessary adjustments if conditions change.
The Path Forward
All of us are committed to providing our students with academic and co-curricular programs of high quality, including the in-person engagement that is a key component of a Michigan education. We are deeply appreciative of the thoughtfulness and creativity with which you have worked to ensure our students have a rich academic experience. As the very high policy compliance among them suggests, students want to be on campus, enhancing their opportunities to learn from and with you.
While these are challenging times to be sure, absent illness or significant COVID-19 exposure, we expect our faculty to deliver their courses using the planned and promised modality. Our Regents, campus leaders, students and their families see in-person education as a hallmark of our university. Our students choose courses and develop their academic schedules with this expectation. Wherever possible, we have a commitment to fulfill our promises to them to the greatest extent possible.
Our success in the current uncertain circumstances is dependent on each of us continuing to act with kindness to others and to be flexible as we continue to adjust to unexpected developments. Offering understanding and support to others, and receiving it ourselves, strengthens our community and enriches our lives. We recognize that the coming weeks will be difficult, and we ask every member of our community to do what each of us can to advance our shared mission.
Susan M. Collins
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
Edward M. Gramlich Collegiate Professor of Public Policy
Professor of Economics