COVID-19 prompts MSU to switch to remote classes 2 weeks ahead of fall semester start

More colleges and universities could follow suit in coming days

Michigan State University | Susan J. Demas

Two weeks before its fall classes start date, Michigan State University told students it is switching all undergraduate courses to online-only instruction and asked undergraduate students to stay home and work remotely.

The notification came in a Tuesday afternoon email from Samuel L. Stanley Jr., MSU’s president and a biomedical researcher. 

“Effective immediately, we are asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely,” Stanley wrote. “While a vast majority of our classes already were offered in remote formats, we will work the next two weeks to transition those that were in-person or hybrid to remote formats.”

MSU is the first public Michigan university to make that call. University of Michigan faculty members have protested the college’s decision to hold in-person classes this fall.

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The decision came as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in the United States and higher education institutions experience spikes or even outbreaks because students are re-populating college communities. Johns Hopkins University reports the U.S. stands at more than 5.4 million cases and Michigan reports close to 94,000 cases as of early Wednesday morning. 

Stanley also said it has “become evident” that the university doesn’t have the means to prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if undergraduates return to campus.

There are a few exceptions to the transition. Students in the university’s law, human medicine, nursing, osteopathic medicine or veterinary medicine programs are still, at the moment, set to have some forms of in-person instruction. Graduate students are in the same boat. 

Stanley wrote that the university plans to work with its international student population on straightening out visa statuses and supplying them with labs, studios and performance-based classes required for graduation. 

Those specific colleges and programs will get more details later, Stanley wrote. Research initiatives will also continue. 

The university’s Residential and Hospitality Services (RHS) division plans to accommodate a “small number” of students in on-campus residence halls, specifically those who indicate MSU is their primary home or they need to be on campus for jobs. Stanley wrote that refunds or credits will be given to students who have already paid for the upcoming semester. 

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Many students are already living in on-campus residence halls or had planned to arrive before Sept. 2, the day classes begin. Several others have solidified plans to live in off-campus housing, like apartments or shared houses. 

MSU and other universities and colleges in the state deployed a similar online-only undergraduate education model in March, shortly after two COVID-19 cases were identified in Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency.

In April, both Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities (MICU) and the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU), which represent a collective of 40 higher education institutions across the state, alerted students that school administration officials were still planning to open back up come fall, COVID-19 withstanding. 

Tuesday’s shift by MSU came within hours of Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) Health Officer Linda Vail handing down an order that indefinitely restricts outdoor gatherings in East Lansing to 25 people or less — more strict than 100 or less laid out by state executive order. 

The city garnered national attention in June after a significant outbreak of COVID-19 was traced back to Harper’s, an East Lansing brewpub that’s frequented by MSU students. 

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Other college closures

MSU’s transition to online-only instruction is the latest development in a series of higher education organizations across the nation making changes to their 2020-21 school year plans amid the pandemic. 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made headlines this week when, six days into its semester, the school’s administration reverted to a remote instruction model because 130 students and five faculty members tested positive for COVID-19. The university’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, used a choice word to describe the outbreak. The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday also said it was suspending in-person classes after clusters of COVID-19 popped up.

Last week, college football conferences Big Ten and Pac-12 made the decision to postpone their seasons due to the pandemic. MSU is part of the Big Ten conference.