Editorial: NMU COVID-19 testing, fall semester preparedness

North Wind Staff

As we begin the Fall 2020 semester, many aspects of NMU’s treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic have been on everyone’s minds, and nobody seems to be on the same page. Students are juggling a lot of concerns. Chief among them is uncertainty about how prevalent COVID-19 will be on campus this semester. NMU has implemented a policy of testing every student on campus during the Passport to Campus event.

It’s important to understand why we’re all being tested. The number of detected COVID cases during this testing period will influence how the semester goes. It’s common sense really: if someone has the virus, then we don’t want them out and about on campus. The testing is to educate people on their current status so that we can all act accordingly. Finding out right away how many people have the virus will help with contact tracing and settling into the semester’s beginning.

We also test because of the risk of students bringing COVID to residents of the Upper Peninsula. NMU students are not just being tested to protect ourselves and others on campus, but for the health and safety of the wider community as well. NMU students and other community members should recognize that the start of the fall academic year brings a lot of young people close together at the risk of the community at large. Testing to determine who has the virus may prevent the spread from reaching more vulnerable members of the community such as the elderly.

Given the risks posed to ourselves and our community members by COVID-19, it seems prudent to look at how other universities are succeeding or failing to effectively deal with the virus. Many universities in Michigan have taken proactive steps to test people and provide alternatives to in-person classes to ensure COVID-19 does not overwhelm local health infrastructure. Michigan State (MSU) has asked that 75% of its courses be taught online and has added more staff to its virus protection team. The type of testing MSU is doing is a large scale tube test where students spit in a tube from their rooms and send it in to get results. The University of Michigan (U of M) has taken a similar approach, while cutting back on in-person courses. 

According to a letter sent out to students, “currently available data and registrations imply that approximately 70% of credits for undergraduates can be taken remote this fall; many hybrid courses also offer the option to attend remotely as well. There is no requirement to return to campus for your coursework for most majors.”

The letter also outlines a mandatory 14-day period where students have to monitor their health with twice daily temp checks to ensure they are not bringing the disease on campus. U of M  is also asking that all students be tested and have results prior to moving in on campus, something NMU has not effectively accomplished. Michigan Tech has also established testing infrastructure—they are using an outdoor tent to test large groups of students. The test, however, is not mandatory, which makes it difficult to ensure that all students on campus are not spreading COVID-19. 

NMU should take notes from other universities and offer 70% of classes online, while making results of the COVID test a condition for moving into campus housing. It’s extremely dangerous that students’ COVID-19 tests take days to get results, possibly allowing people to spread the disease asymptomatically. If other schools like U of M and MSU are taking these large precautions while still being double our size, we know it is possible. This situation is easily avoided by asking for classes to be taught remotely using only a small amount of in-person classes for lab courses and those who need in-person instruction. 

As things stand currently, NMU has set up some safety infrastructure with varying potentials for success. Classrooms have been outfitted with dividers between students, and everyone is required to wear a mask. Spalding hall has been designated as a quarantine living space for sick or potentially sick students. Yet living on campus is dangerous; dorms are relying on students’ accountability. It will only take a single student getting sick in a space as confined as the dorms for an outbreak to occur. 

As President Erickson stated in his latest email update, “the actions you take impact Northern and will directly play a role in whether NMU remains open for face-to-face instruction and on-campus living.  As part of the expected student behavior and COVID safety protocols outlined in the Official University Requirement, you are being asked to take care of yourself, others, and the NMU and U.P. communities.”

NMU has taken important steps for the safety of the students, but the responsibility is also in the hands of the students.