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Despite rise in COVID, Michigan State to offer more classes, dorm housing

Michigan State University, which leads the state’s colleges and universities in coronavirus cases, announced Thursday that it would allow 2,500 students back into dorms and increase in-person classes tenfold in January.

In a letter to students and families, MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. wrote that protocols aimed at keeping students and staff safe on campus this autumn have proven effective.

The statement from Stanley, a doctor with a background in infectious disease, comes as the university is battling 1,622 confirmed COVID-19 cases connected to outbreaks among students in East Lansing, and less than a month after many fraternities, sororities and off-campus housing units were quarantined because of what Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said was “quickly becoming a crisis.”

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The university argues that outbreaks are the result of unmonitored off-campus social gatherings, rather than activities on the campus, where everyone is required to wear a mask and classrooms have been adjusted to allow for social distancing. That’s also the assessment of Vail, who has linked the vast majority of MSU-related cases to off-campus student gatherings.

MSU shuttered its dorms for the vast majority of students shortly before classes began this fall and encouraged students to stay in their hometowns and take classes online. International students and students who didn’t have another place to go were allowed in the dorms.

When the second semester begins in January, MSU plans to allow an additional 2,500 students into residence halls that normally house about 10,000. Students living or taking classes on campus will be required to  participate in a campus COVID testing program.

“The fall has shown us that our systems and protocols set up for on-campus housing have proven effective and successful, and we are confident we can return more students to our residence halls,” Stanley wrote. “Many Spartans continue to express a desire to live on campus.”

Sixty miles away in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan left its dorms open for students this fall. The result so far has been outbreaks in many of the residence halls, including several with more than 80 confirmed cases. The Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-home order for U-M’s 31,000 undergrad students this week, in an effort to tamp down its own spike in infections. According to a state report released Monday, there are 836 confirmed coronavirus cases connected to outbreaks at U-M, about half the total the same report tallies at MSU.

Face-to-face classes at MSU will increase from just 40 this semester to 400 in January. That still means the vast majority of classes will be fully remote. According to the letter, the university will prioritize offering classes that can only be taught in person in order to keep students on track for on-time graduation.

Ingham Health Department’s Vail told Bridge Michigan in an email Thursday she was “cautiously optimistic” about MSU’s plan. 

Students may find it helpful to participate in structured classes where there are strong safety measures in place. Combining this with mandatory participation in the Spartan Spit Test [COVID testing] program, some scheduling changes, and the continuation of existing safety measures, MSU could significantly suppress case counts this spring with its proposed plan.”

Stanley noted in the letter the “year has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen and I’m proud of the hard work our faculty, staff and students have put in to make the best of a Spartan education during this pandemic.”

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