Lansing – Central Michigan University shows no signs of shutting down campus as it nears 300 coronavirus cases associated with it’s university population.
The administration is pushing to keep students on campus until it is no longer feasible, but tensions with students are increasing.
As of Friday, the university had self-reported 181 cases since it began classes on Aug. 17, about 1% of the campus population of students, staff and faculty in Mount Pleasant. However, the Central Michigan District Health Department reports it’s identified 260 cases related to CMU’s student population.
A group of students participating in a #NotFiredUpForFall campaign put up signs in popular spots on campus Monday calling on the university to suspend in-person classes.
The campaign, a play on CMU’s chant “Fire up Chips,” is being led by New America Project, a progressive student organization. The campaign is demanding that CMU be accountable to students and protect at-risk populations.
“One life is too many to be touched by this disease,” NAP President Emily Jones said. “CMU seems to not really have any regard for the science, even though they like to claim that.”
Many in the university community have called on the administration to go online. CMU President Bob Davies addressed these requests in a letter on Aug. 28.
“I have been asked several times what would trigger CMU to shift to remote-only instruction. Our goal is to continue in-person instruction for as long as we feel we are able to manage and mitigate risk related to COVID-19. If we feel we are no longer able to do so, we will shift.”
Students have the option to choose if they would like to attend in-person classes. However, the #NotFiredUpForFall campaign says that is not enough in its petition to the university. It is seeking to reduce medical and financial harm to the local community of Isabella County, which has the highest poverty rates in the state, according to the University of Michigan.
CMU boasts a positive relationship with the local Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, but the campaign asserts that CMU cannot continue to highlight inclusivity and diversity if it does not do the right thing and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Mattisyn Woods, a senior studying communications sciences and disorders, said she isn’t convinced by the university’s statements. Though she prefers in-person instruction and would like to go to class, she doesn’t know what CMU can do to ensure student health.
“There’s nothing they can actually do to stop it from spreading,” Woods said. “It’s kind of confusing because I think they can take precautions, but they can’t actually protect us, it always depends on a specific person.”
Earlier the same week Davies sent his letter, he issued a statement addressing videos of him playing cornhole with students at parties the administration has spoken out against. He said he had been riding with police encouraging party-goers to wear masks when he got invited to play.
“In retrospect, I see that my participation in the game – regardless of my intent – sent mixed messages about the importance of avoiding large gatherings, and I apologize for the confusion and concerns my actions caused,” Davies wrote.
It’s apparent that the university is not taking the virus seriously, Jones said, as it tries to keep students around until the due dates for tuition refunds.
“Students that don’t want to be here or are very concerned about being here are feeling very betrayed, feeling like they’re unworthy and just feeling like their lives don’t matter to the university,” Jones said. “The plan is to keep us on campus as long as they can so that they can get our full tuition and housing dollars, and then send us on our way.”
Student Body President Katie Prebelich said she appreciates some actions CMU has taken after the spike in cases, such as starting on-campus COVID-19 testing, but she wishes such actions were taken before students came back to campus and got sick. She said it’s difficult for students and administrators.
“There’s definitely anxiety from most students about being here, but also still wanting to be here, so it’s a really difficult position,” Prebelich said.
The university needs to start acting in ways that bring the community together and not divide it, Prebelich said about the habit of finger-pointing on campus.
“It’s the administration’s responsibility to help put regulations and enforce them in a mindful, cognizant way,” Prebelich said. “It’s also students’ responsibility to take care of our own health and be smart and wear masks and social distance, and do all the things that we know we need to be doing. If both of those elements aren’t there, then the cases are going to continue to rise.”
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.