How Will MSU Students’ Return Affect East Lansing?

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The scene outside Harper's in downtown East Lansing on Friday, June 19, at about 9:30 p.m.

The nightly presence of young people crowded outside Harper’s in East Lansing – the overwhelming majority without masks – has raised concerns over what a return of students might mean for East Lansing. Here’s what we know in terms of operations.

How many students will be back in the fall?

In early June, MSU President Sam Stanley announced that MSU would resume (some) in-person instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. But it seems very unlikely that all 50,000 students will return to our area.

Recent administrative communications to faculty, students, and staff suggested that 75 percent of courses will be offered either online or in a hybrid format to reduce in-person contact.

Many international students are facing struggles with travel restrictions and with the rules for student visas, which require in-person courses. So some percentage of international students will not return to campus, and may have to drop-out or take leave from MSU.

Additionally, some students and/or their families are facing economic problems that may prevent their return to school in the fall.

And some students will opt for health reasons to stay out of East Lansing and conduct their educations remotely.

Currently, 2,000 MSU students are living in university housing, and students have begun to trickle back to town for various reasons.

Some graduate students engaged in research have recently resumed work in labs across campus, following rigorous sanitation protocols.

Athletes also returned on June 15 (and at least one tested positive for COVID-19).

In short, it is impossible to know how many students will resume in-person classes on September 2, but the evidence suggests East Lansing will see tens of thousands more people coming to live here when MSU reopens, but probably thousands fewer than usual for fall semester.

What about housing?

MSU is planning to reopen dorms in some fashion. What will that look like? We aren’t sure yet.

What we know is that many universities are opting to only allow single-living in dorm rooms, and if that happens, more MSU students may live off campus in the surrounding area – or they may live elsewhere and take courses online.

Even in ordinary times, the majority of MSU students live off campus. Some of the housing arrangements off campus involve dozens of students living together in big houses, fraternities, and sororities, and coops.

The Sigma Nu fraternity at the corner of Abbot Road and Oak Hill Ave. has been the site of several large gatherings this summer.

The university can advise students living off campus about safe practices, but the university cannot easily monitor or regulate behaviors in these big houses. In Oxford, Mississippi, a COVID-19 outbreak has been linked to fraternity parties.

How many employees will be on campus?

The university is asking all employees who can work remotely to continue to do so. Currently, those working on campus must fill out a health questionnaire, wear a mask, and respect physical distancing.

If dorms reopen, housing and dining staff will be needed to keep services for students running.

It is also possible that professors teaching hybrid and online classes may use facilities on campus to record their lectures. MSU is currently outfitting lecture halls with cameras to permit broadcasting and recording.

So we can expect fewer than usual employees to be on campus in the fall, but it will look a lot busier than campus looks now. (Right now, it’s pretty dead.)

What will campus life be like in the fall?

ELi will be better able to answer this when the subcommittees release their findings, but based on the information available, it will certainly be different.

All athletes were tested upon their return to campus, and it seems likely some kind of screening will be happening with students on campus, particularly for those living in dorms.

Those returning for research have been told to follow strict cleaning protocols, including logging their sanitation practices. We know that at least in the case of one lab, researchers have been assigned specific bathrooms to use.

To enable online and hybrid offerings, MSU is seeking to use the larger classrooms than would normally be used for classes of particular sizes. The hope is that students and instructors will be able to maintain six feet of distance in classes that meet in person.

How was the decision made to reopen for the fall?

President Stanley appointed a task force to consider whether campus should reopen. Stanley is a physician who specializes in infectious diseases, and he appointed University Physician Dr. David Weismantel and Executive Vice President for Health Sciences, Dr. Norman Beauchamp, Jr., to lead the task force.

The task force consisted of approximately 30 university officials to represent various institutional needs and considerations. A full list is available here.

The task force consulted with MSU’s “Strategic Planning Steering Committee; the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee; Dean’s Council; Faculty Governance Steering Committee; and Student Leaders Council.”

The task force also considered information from a survey, which is still open to faculty, staff, undergraduate students, graduate students, parents, alumni, and donors.

Since the initial task force decided to reopen the university to in-person classes, 21 unique subcommittees formed. Subcommittees for contact tracing, testing, scenario planning, and risk management have been meeting. Other subcommittees are addressing issues such as equity and inclusion, finances, transportation, and academic advising to name a few.

Although intergovernmental dialogue has occurred, there were no members of East Lansing’s government or the Ingham County Health Department or any other outside institution on the task force.

Disclosure: ELi’s Managing Editor, Alice Dreger, is married to the interim dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine, who is on some of the reopening subcommittees.

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