Students and faculty start dialogue over COVID concerns

Rachel Dick, Managing Editor

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, USG representative Davi Sprague and Scientific and Technical Communication student Riley Powers met with MTU Dean of Students Dr. Wallace Southerland, Chair of MTU Flex Dr. Sarah Schulte, and Director of Communications for MTU Flex, Dr. John Lehman to bring forward questions raised by members of the MTU community regarding the University’s handling of COVID-19. Sprague and Powers compiled a collection of questions for the university representatives through Google Forms and the Husky Discord server. Community members could submit their questions anonymously or provide their names.

Powers stressed the importance of establishing good communication between students and faculty, in order to find solutions and keep both parties in the conversation. “Open dialogues are a good first step to keeping both parties informed on how decisions are being made, and the impacts thereof. This remains important to me as everyone, including myself, is impacted by the decisions and considerations made by the Flex Team.” 

Sprague echoed these sentiments as well: “As a representative of USG, it’s my job to advocate on behalf of students. I try to keep my ear to the ground to know what’s happening around campus. One thing that I just kept hearing over and over again from students was frustration with trying to get emails and responses about COVID-19 concerns.”

The university representatives emphasized that while the campus as a whole is widely open, accommodations can be made to immunocompromised students. There will be “a lot of flexibility over the weeks,” Dr. Schulte said. Among these accommodations is an on-demand grab-and-go option from the dining halls, available to immunocompromised students who go through the office of Student Disability Services. 

In regards to a contingency plan in the case of a large breakout of COVID-19, the university representatives told the students that because there is no one way a large breakout can look, there is no one contingency plan, although there are plans in place to handle major changes within the pandemic. “I may define a large breakout differently than an immunocompromised student,” Dr. Southerland said. The representatives stated that the university plans to comply with the health department should they request that students be sent home from residence halls. Meanwhile, the university continues to encourage community members to get vaccinated and isolate when necessary. As of now, the university’s isolation spaces, which include spaces in local hotels, have not been exhausted. 

The representatives informed the students that they have placed an order for KN95 masks. Due to supply-chain issues, the university cannot be sure when these masks will arrive. Upon their arrival, the university plans to distribute the masks to students for free. They suspect they will be able to give interested students one or two masks each until the supply is exhausted. 

In response to a faculty-submitted question asking why the testing dashboard didn’t include more information, the representatives expressed the desire of MTU Flex to provide meaningful data. “Our epidemiologist cautioned us from drawing a positivity rate,” Dr. Lehman said. Not all positive tests are reported to the university, which may result in incomplete data. Dr. Schulte drew a similar conclusion for the reason masks are not required in the SDC. “We hate to set standards that we can’t achieve,” Dr. Schulte said. MTU flex tries not to “set false expectations for people who want a fully masked environment that we can’t achieve.”

In response to concerns over ambiguity as to when the university moves between safety levels, the representatives said that there are no hard cut-offs and that they look at health care capacity, hospitalization rate, and CDC data.

After the Q&A, Sprague told The Lode that they “…consider the whole thing a massive success. We were able to answer ten questions in detail and provide those answers for the entire Michigan Tech community.” It is their hope that “…this will be just the start of an ongoing dialogue between students and administration, not just about COVID-19, but about any other issues or concerns within our community.”

The list of questions discussed at the Q&A, along with their answers edited for clarity, can be found here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1e84P_YB3L2n0tOxQN_QieD2LO4i5PNiFyZKTZyofrJY/edit