Did a county slap a toggle term onto a major university?

How are colleges and universities handling COVID-19 infections this semester?

Of all the many strategies in play now, the Toggle Term has been catching some media attention, probably because it’s more dramatic than an academic year decision.  I’m tracking more than twenty instances so far.  (If the phrase is new to you, it describes a scenario where a campus switches strategies in mid-term, such as switching between online and in-person instruction, one or more times.)

Yesterday my alma mater conducted a Toggle Term.  And it looks like it wasn’t their choice.

Bryan at the UM cubeSome background: I went to the University of Michigan in the 1980s and 1990s.  UM gave me three degrees for this.  My wife and I were married in sight of campus.  Our first child was born while I did my PhD.  Some friends of mine still work there or adjacent to the university. So I have a deep emotional connection to the place.

So what happened?  Basically, COVID-19 infections rose in Ann Arbor.  The county where the campus is, Washtenaw, just ordered Michigan students to shelter in place.  Specifically, it’s a “Public Health Emergency Stay in Place Order for U-M Students COVID.”

Washtenaw County Health Department is issuing a public health emergency stay in place order for University of Michigan undergraduate students effective immediately and continuing through November 3, 2020 at 7:00 a.m.

Why do this?

“The situation locally has become critical, and this order is necessary to reverse the current increase in cases,” says Jimena Loveluck, MSW, health officer for Washtenaw County. “We must continue to do what we can to minimize the impact on the broader community and to ensure we have the public health capacity to fully investigate cases and prevent additional spread of illness.”

More detail:

The number of COVID-19 cases among U-M students is increasing and represents over 60% of local cases. Stay in place orders are intended to limit socializing among students, slow down new cases, and allow for effective case investigation and contact tracing. Most infections are the result of social events and gatherings.

From the UM dashboard:

coronavirus in Washtenaw county 2020 August-October

You can see UM infections rising significantly during the first two weeks of October.

Similar rises appear on the dashboard’s quarantine and isolation housing panel:

coronavirus U Michigan quarantine and isolation 2020 Oct 21 dashboard

That occupancy rate is noteworthy.  Will UM need to set aside more rooms?

Speaking of which, it seems that student housing, not classes, seem to be the primary site of infections. From an MLive account:

The majority of cases are among students in residence halls and students living in congregate settings, such as fraternities, sororities and cooperative housing, health officials said.

The Michigan dashboard shows us individual residence halls:

coroanavirus U Michigan dorms 2020 Oct 21

Mary Markley is the leader, followed by South and West Quads.  (I lived in East Quad for two years, and was even president of its student government, back in the past.  Now it’s on the low end of infections.)

The rise may be overriding some local health care capacity:

The word “overwhelm” appears in the county’s statement, too, in this context:

The U-M-associated surge in cases is overwhelming the ability of WCHD, including U-M Environmental Health Safety (UM-EHS) who conducts on-campus COVID-19 case investigation, to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic and other critical public health mandates that are in place to protect the health and well-being of Washtenaw County residents… [emphasis added]

Another possible driver is football game time and associated partying, according to James Baker:

Maybe the most concerning issue was that the first football game is this coming Saturday with the next game on Halloween the following Saturday. These are traditional party opportunities and posed fears of larger outbreaks.

Football itself will go on.

I’m having a hard time figuring out the decision process behind this event.  Did the university approach the county for help, or did Washtenaw County Health Department take the lead on this?  The tone of reporting and official statements suggests the latter, with the county, not the university, making the announcement and appearing as the prime mover.

For example, the presidential statement hints that the county health authority wasn’t a junior partner.  For example, consider the word order here: “Today, the Washtenaw County Health Department, in collaboration with the university, issued a 14-day Stay in Place order…” “The university” literally comes second, while the county is the sentence’s main subject.  Later on in the document, it’s all about the county:

Under the Washtenaw County order, U-M undergraduate students living in on-campus, near-campus or off-campus housing in Ann Arbor will be required to stay in place and remain in their current designated residence. The full set of restrictions is spelled out by the county here.

The UM Record phrases things to suggest the county made the call.  “With county order, university also giving students option to return home” sets up a clear sequence.  And this sounds like a reactive campus:

The shift [to more online teaching for undergrads] comes as the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a 14-day stay-in-place order Oct. 20 for undergraduate students amid rising cases of COVID-19 in the community. The order will expire at 7 a.m. Nov. 3, Election Day, but could be extended. The university supports the order.

“The university supports the order”: I think if the university came up with the idea that sentence would look different.

Moreover, the county’s official statement reads like a complaint about the university, or at least some in the UM community.  For example,

Despite the efforts of Washtenaw County Health Department (WCHD), and many in the U-M community, there have been more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students at the U-M Ann Arbor campus since the start of the fall semester…

There is current evidence that activity at or near the Ann Arbor campus is driven by social gatherings that do not adhere to the MDHHS epidemic orders and WCHD public health orders…

If that’s correct – and it might not be; I look forward to hearing more from readers – this would be a major story of town-gown relations in the age of COVID-19.  It’s also the largest scale Toggle Term I’ve heard of, and on top of that a rare one forced by government, not an academic administration.

I’m curious about decision-making within the county.  Were they pressured by members of the local community beyond the university?  Did they want to take the powerful campus down a peg, or was this a reluctant choice?  Behind the scenes, what kind of negotiations went on?  Is this something UM resisted, but was persuaded to go along with?

One more detail: why is the county doing this, rather than the state of Michigan?  Jason Siko notes that Lansing has been hobbled recently:


What can we derive from this story so far?

It’s an interesting case of a major, world-class research university with a magnificent medical establishment being overruled by a county for whom that university is the largest employer.

For months I’ve been writing about how COVID-19 exacerbates town-gown relations; “town” authorities may become bolder, especially as the virus keeps raging.

Given the many criticisms of UM’s administration in this story, it’s another datapoint for hits to American academia’s reputation.

I just hope the toggle term quashes the infection right away, and that nobody else in the Ann Arbor area gets hurt, off campus or on.

(thanks to Todd Bryant; booklover, Edward Vielmetti, and Ally Cara on Twitter;  Jeannie Lvrich on Facebook)

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4 Responses to Did a county slap a toggle term onto a major university?

  1. CristiBz says:

    There’s a lot to unpack from this story.

    It reminded me of cases in San Diego, where county leaders have issued orders with the intention to accelerate (err force) the pace of getting students to move off-campus back in the Spring and have slowed the pace of return to campus in the Fall…

    at USD: https://www.sandiego.edu/coronavirus/documents/student-relocation-20200317.html

    at SDSU: https://www.pacificsandiego.com/latest/story/2020-09-16/san-diego-county-headed-to-more-restrictive-purple-tier-because-of-sdsu-outbreaks

  2. Tom Stroup says:

    About college football:

    The Big Ten begins football play this week. Michigan plays Saturday night at Minnesota…so it is likely there would be (or still could be) some parties to watch the game.

    The following week they return home to “The Big House”, but no fans will be in attendance. The issue is: They are playing their cross town rival Michigan State University. So perhaps there will be some Spartans making the trip down from East Lansing to party with their Wolverine friends.

    One other note: The local county and U of M Campus health may be overloaded, but the Hospital (one of the best hospitals in the country) has a very low patient count at this time…

  3. Oswald Sobrino says:

    For those of us who have followed the story very, very closely in real time, the obvious reality is that the current UM administration is inept. If the county initiated the change, long live the county.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oswald, greetings. I’d like to learn more, as I’ve only followed from afar and through local contacts. What am I missing – the GEO action?

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