Administrators speak on winter semester plans amidst pandemic

Jeff Thomas, Editor-in-Chief

Members of Oakland University’s administrative staff sat down with students last Tuesday to address concerns about how OU will handle the winter semester given the current surge in COVID-19 cases. 

In the past month, new restrictions and guidelines have come from OU President Ora Pescovitz and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The necessity for these restrictions have become evident, given the 5% increase in Michigan and 12% increase nationally in COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks. 

There is urgency to contain the virus, and students want to know what OU plans to do to keep them safe.

A key component in the university’s stability is maintaining student confidence. Although Michigan recently introduced new health and safety restrictions, Michelle Piskulich, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, pointed out that the university was ahead of the government in taking action.

“We had already determined after looking at the positivity rates in Oakland and Wayne County and here on campus that we were going to limit in-person learning,” Piskulich said. “We were going remote except for labs, clinicals, field experiences and internships. The only real change for academics was that [Gov. Whitmer’s announcement] further limited the kinds of courses that could continue.”

Vice President of Student Affairs Glenn McIntosh continued, pointing out the hard work OU officials put into decisions regarding the virus.

“The week prior to the governor’s announcement, the two of us worked on different scenarios for the university to consider,” McIntosh said. “There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that go on. We were aggressive … ahead of the curve, instead of waiting to see how everybody else reacted.”

The competency of OU officials is apparent in Michigan’s virus tracing data. Oakland University has fared better than other comparable public universities in the state — with only 237 confirmed cases, in comparison to Western Michigan University’s 1,068 cases, Ferris State University’s 451 cases and Grand Valley State University’s 1,563 cases.

According to Piskulich, the coming semester will resemble the fall. She confirmed rumors that the first couple weeks of class will be done remotely.

“We will delay the first in person meetings until Jan. 19,” Piskulich said. “This provides a little more time between holiday gatherings and when we have students sitting next to one another. We want to be sure that when students are back we are providing an environment for them that protects their health and safety, as well as the health and safety of the faculty and staff.”

When students return to campus for the winter semester, they should expect the same safety guidelines that were in place for the fall semester. Piskulich iterated that mandates like mask wearing and social distancing were effective in containing the virus and will continue. 

For students living on campus, OU plans to expand COVID-19 testing and other student resources. According to McIntosh, OU has already ordered 30,000 face masks for students, and thanks to the generosity of a couple companies OU now has more than 100,000 masks at their disposal.

Students are also concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic. Many students have lost their income, and are trying to receive benefits through Michigan’s unemployment system has been a disaster.

In response to these concerns, McIntosh reminded students of steps OU has taken, such as canceling tuition increases and providing grants to eligible students. 

While indicating that more options are on the table for assisting students in the future, McIntosh explained the financial concerns of the university, specifically the fear of a substantial decrease in attendance.

“That’s the thing that keeps us up at night,” McIntosh said. “It concerns us the most because [tuition is] our lifeline. The greatest concern of a senior level leader of a higher-ed institution is enrollment. I think students are waiting to see what happens with the coronavirus curve. We have seen some movement over the past four or five days on increasing enrollment. We’re hoping to catch up for the winter semester.”

McIntosh also serves as the Chief Diversity Officer for OU. He also unpacked how the pandemic is affecting poorer communities, specifically Black communities. They are seeing significantly higher infection and mortality rates, as well as higher rates of unemployment.

McIntosh reiterated his commitment to maintaining retention and graduation rates for underprivileged students. 

“The pandemic has hit, particularly the urban African American community quite hard,” McIntosh said. “You see the economic impact on parents … you see those students not finding jobs and so on. As a result of that they’re struggling to get to that finish line. COVID-19 is [another challenge] now and so we try to navigate those students through. As a university, we need to be better tuned in and not lose touch with those students.”