MSU weighs mandatory quarantine for incoming ‘high-risk’ students

University officials shoot down suggestions for app-based location tracking

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THURSDAY, August 6 — As Michigan State University gears up for the fall semester, Ingham County officials are urging a mandatory quarantine for students coming in from high-risk states and the use of location-based phone software to track possible instances of viral exposure.

But the current reopening plans leave more to be desired, health officials said.

“We’re talking about the different nuances of how to deal with the population of students, making sure they quarantine if needed coming in, particularly from high-risk states,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. “They’ve made that highly recommended at this point, but I’m in conversations with them right now to make that more than just highly recommended.”

MSU officials sent out an email to students and parents this week that said freshmen students wouldn’t need to live on campus as usual this fall. It encouraged all students who can “live safely and study successfully at home” to do so for the mid-pandemic semester this fall.

Students who still planned to come to campus from “hot spot” locations — including several Southern states  — are “strongly recommended” to take a two-week self-quarantine upon arrival, officials said. Testing, likewise, is encouraged but certainly not mandated for attendance.

Vail contended MSU must do more than simply ask those incoming students to quarantine. They must demand it — especially of those who choose to live on campus in MSU’s residential halls. She immediately emailed MSU officials after hearing the guidance to push for stricter guidance.

And so far, MSU hasn’t been too quick to beef up their policies for the fall semester.

“Our option, of course, is always to have a local order that requires it,” Vail said. “At the time students come back on campus, we may have to switch that to a requirement for the first few weeks of school if we cannot get the university to work with this quarantine requirement.”

An MSU spokeswoman said today students traveling to campus from high-risk states or other countries will be “expected” to quarantine once they arrive on campus but not necessarily required. No decisions have been made as internal plans are assembled. The student code of conduct will also help ensure rules are followed on campus, she said.

Vail suggested that scholarships could also be withheld from students who fail to comply with a mandatory quarantine or contact tracing efforts from the Health Department, which have been difficult in recent weeks as many (mostly younger) residents refuse to cooperate with officials.

State officials said earlier this week that fewer than half of those exposed and contacted by local health departments have been willing to reveal their close contacts and recent whereabouts. Vail has expressed similar challenges in contact tracing cooperation within Ingham County.

Vail has encouraged MSU to launch a state pilot program that would use a location-based phone app to track and notify students when they’ve been potentially exposed. MSU, at this point, is still exploring accountability measures to ensure student compliance with regulations, but does not plan to use any phone software for mandatory student contact tracing.

“We have explored a few options, but our IT department and physicians leading our reopen efforts have not found something that we believe will work for us at MSU,” a university spokeswoman said today. “We are using the existing dean of students and code of conduct processes for accountability related to our MSU Company and student behavior.”

Meanwhile, MSU officials will continue to ramp up mask requirements, cleaning procedures and social distancing protocols. A “Community Compact” has also been created with directives and student expectations that all students must agree to before enrollment.

“The vast majority of first-year students this fall will have course schedules that are completely online,” according to a statement from MSU officials. “Living away from campus may be the best choice for you and your family, particularly if you have family members at higher health risk.”

Classrooms have also been retrofitted to accommodate more physical distance between students. Smaller rooms have been closed. Students are also asked to avoid large gatherings.

“We know that meeting people from other places and backgrounds is a fundamental and important part of college life, but these are not normal circumstances. In fact, many of the usual campus experiences are being completely rethought and will be offered in remote-access formats,” officials said. “The choice to live on campus should be based on safety and success.”

Overnight guests will also not be allowed in residence halls this fall. Face coverings will be required both indoors and outdoors and study groups must either be virtual or meet only in a socially distanced environment. Officials are strictly enforcing state mandates on crowd control.

Despite most classes moving to virtual instruction, MSU officials said they also have no plans to reduce tuition costs. Regardless of the format, MSU is still delivering a high quality education and an online format apparently does little to reduce the value of its degrees, officials explained.

Ingham County has tracked more than 1,400 COVID-19 cases to date with 30 deaths. In recent weeks, the vast majority of new cases have been patients between the ages of 20-29. Vail said enhanced restrictions on crowd control may also be necessary as students descend on campus.

“The East Lansing Police are also long familiar with some of the more prominent areas where large parties happen and are prepared to be involved in keeping those gatherings, especially visible outdoor gatherings, down to a limited number,” Vail added. “We’re also going to have to talk about restricting those gatherings to a smaller number to keep problems to a minimum.”

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