Ann Arbor, MI—Washtenaw County’s recent stay-in-place order for U-M undergraduate students is an ineffective and last-minute attempt to stop a wholly preventable COVID-19 outbreak on campus, caused by U-M’s inadequate and unsafe reopening plan. This is two months too late! We deserve better. 

GEO and allies across campus, including ResStaff student workers, MDining student workers, Central Student Government, Students Demand Representation, and others, sounded the alarm about these dangerous conditions since May. This stay at home order is coming after months of dismissive responses to campus groups who were alarmed and concerned about the fall term; after numerous stories being shared on unsafe conditions students, faculty, and staff were abandoned to survive COVID-19 without the support of a multi-billion dollar institution: 1 [domestic violence and failed response], 2 [gaslighting and retaliation of staff], 3 [lack of parental support], 4 [staff member questions university’s priorities], 5 [August 28th Concerns on Re-Opening Plans by GEO & LEO], 6 [1966 alumni speaks out]; after the vote of no confidence in President Mark Schlissel by the SACUA on September 16th in his leadership and response to the pandemic; and after GEO’s two-week strike (September 8th-16th). However, rather than engage in productive dialogue or rethink the reopening plan, the university used bullying tactics to silence us by threatening to sue our union out of existence if we did not accept their offer. 

In August, 2% of Washtenaw County COVID-19 cases were related to U-M; now 61% of them are tied to the university. The Washtenaw County Health Department has finally stepped in to force U-M’s hand to take swift action. This stay-in-place order supports what students, faculty, and staff have been saying since May: that the plans that were developed and then implemented were not enough to avoid a crisis on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus.

But we don’t want to be right—we want to be safe.

This stay-at-home order bypasses many of the unsafe conditions at U-M; it includes myriad exceptions and seems to only be targeting undergraduate students partying. This order does not prevent the university from insisting, as it has been doing for months, that its student athletes and student workers risk their health for the university’s bottom line. The administration has continuously promised since September 17 that its weekly testing capacity would reach 6,000 by the end of October. According to the U-M COVID-19 Dashboard, weekly testing reached about 5,700. However, it has become abundantly clear that this is not enough. 

The University of Michigan, “the leaders and the best,” has shown that they are unable to follow through on even the basic promise of testing. A myriad of testimonials has demonstrated that students currently need to seek outside testing due to the refusal of UHS to provide a test and the subsequent backlog across community providers. Based on the troubling inadequacy of testing, the proposed process requiring undergraduates to be tested before returning home is very concerning. A larger concern, however, is the continued narrative that in-person classes and activities are not a cause for increased risk and exposure. While many classes are urged to shift to fully remote, President Schlissel’s email indicated that “classes that are substantially enhanced by in-person instruction” will continue to be held in person. We question the metrics by which this will be judged, how and by whom this call will be made, and whether this substantial enhancement is really a higher priority than community safety.

Even now that the stay-in-place order has been issued, the recent spikes and clusters forming in university housing could continue to increase. This is even more concerning given that students are now being quarantined in residential housing in Northwood alongside healthy students and their families. While this is all happening, Maize and Blueprint is claiming that quarantine housing capacity has not yet exceeded 60%, indicating one of two alarming scenarios: either the numbers are much higher than is reflected publicly, or there were always plans to use regular-term residential housing for quarantine and isolation.

GEO remains concerned about enforcement of this ban on social gatherings. After the failed attempt of U-M’s Ambassador Program, enforcement for public health code violations can be up to a $200 fine and 90 days in jail, according to today’s release, though the promise has been made that first steps will include education and engagement rather than punishment. We are concerned to hear in today’s briefing that well over 1,000 individual citations for  violations have been issued, and that these are  being cast as restorative practices. Despite the citations, we have only seen the numbers climb. Will they continue to climb? Will education and engagement stop the spread? It is time to acknowledge that “individual, uninformed students behaving badly” are not the specters administrators claim they are; at some point we must consider that the university was in the perfect position to understand student life but created the structural realities that led to these devastating outcomes. A plan that relies on 100% compliance to be successful, with no room for contingency, is unsafe, irresponsible, and doomed to fail. 

Despite tonight’s hurriedly-arranged briefing with top administrators, which served to reiterate this afternoon’s flurry of emails, this community still has doubts about the university’s commitment to protecting student workers, the poor communication of the details of campus-related  COVID cases, and the struggles facing many undergraduates who are scared, unable to get tested, and unsure where to turn for help. 

GEO is committed to continue working with and for our campus and off-campus communities. We plan to continue our work on advocating on behalf of all students, faculty, and staff. We are deeply saddened and frustrated as more and more of our undergraduate students, university staff, and health care workers and officials are forced to bear the consequences of U-M’s failed reopening plans.   

Press Contact

Leah Bernardo-Ciddio and Cassandra Euphrat Weston, Communications Co-Chairs  

GEO COVID-19 Caucus Statement on Stay-in-Place Order issued 20 October 2020