This Tuesday evening, East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens got a call about a group of Michigan State University students partying outside at a house near City Hall.
Wearing a mask and gloves, he approached the maskless and closely-spaced group, introduced himself, and explained why he had come over. He told them he didn’t want to call the police — instead he tried to inform them about the rules in East Lansing and even went to his car to grab a box of masks to pass out.
“And ninety percent of those people were really receptive,” Stephens said. “They said, ‘Hey, we really appreciate it. We’re going to be better next time.’”
Just a few hours before this, MSU announced that in-person instruction for undergraduates has been suspended for the Fall semester. The goal is to keep the dorms largely empty.
But tens of thousands of students are likely to be living in East Lansing off-campus, taking online classes and trying to salvage some semblance of college as they knew it and making the most of leases that, in many cases, they can’t get out of.
Significant concern exists as to whether students living off-campus will act responsibly in response to the Covid-19 public health emergency, or whether they will create hot-spots that spread the virus locally.
But Stephens’ anecdote illustrates the uphill battle that the City and MSU face.
So, what can be done?
In his message announcing the suspension of in-person instruction, MSU President Dr. Sam Stanley recommended that students planning to live off-campus consider staying home for the term. That said, in a press conference over Zoom on Wednesday afternoon, Stanley said he had heard the concerns about the fact that many are likely to stay (and some to party maskless with people not in their households).
All MSU students, faculty and staff, Stanley noted, have agreed to MSU’s “Community Compact” which outlines the proper health and safety measures everyone must adhere to, even off-campus.
If a mask order is in place and enrolled students aren’t following it, or they’re not distancing, or holding a party with too many people, Stanley said, they can be reported to the university to face repercussions in the student conduct system.
“What we said to East Lansing and other municipalities,” Stanley said, “is if you are able to identify students who are non-compliant with this, tell us.”
Stephens told ELi on Wednesday evening that soon MSU and the City will be making public what Stephens likened to an off-campus student code of conduct pertaining to Covid-19 related issues.
It’s unclear whether that will look like a formalization of the compact or an extension of it, but Stephens welcomes any additions to the City’s toolbox for handling such issues.
Right now, Stephens said, the way for the City to respond is by issuing 25-dollar citations for not wearing a mask downtown and more directly breaking up parties with too many people and ultimately, making arrests.
But Stephens wants that all to be a last resort. He thinks there are more tactful ways to address the problem than with the police cudgel, which he noted, “puts our police in an uncomfortable situation.”
Under arrangements made with MSU, the City will have a community liaison at MSU as a point of contact where students will be referred if they’re found in violation, Stephens said.
He likes the idea of using the student conduct process because the first incident will likely involve intervention in the form of education and an attempt to correct the issue before turning to punitive measures — something that’s harder to achieve when sending police.
In partnering with the university to help contain violations of mask orders and social distancing rules, Stephens hopes to strengthen the town-gown relationship, reinforcing the symbiosis between MSU and East Lansing while actually helping to contain Covid-19 off-campus.
“It’s more real for people if their school is involved,” Stephens said.
Stanley also said during his press conference that the university is working with MSU’s Greek system (the fraternities and sororities) to sign a pledge that they won’t host social events and the like this semester. He said they haven’t signed off yet, but indicated the hold-up is due to the different Greek organizations’ bylaws and requirements for democratically deciding matters.
Stephens is hopeful that the no-party pledge will happen.
“But if we don’t see that off campus,” Stephens said, “then we’re going to have this in place to be able to communicate to MSU where we have problem areas.”