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2 Michigan Colleges Face Coronavirus Outbreaks In The 1st Week Of School


Turmoil on college campuses continues, involving coronavirus outbreaks and how to handle them. Today there are developments from Michigan, where two big state universities are facing different difficult challenges. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been on a college road trip as the school year begins and is just back from Michigan, and she joins us now.

Hi, Elissa.


PFEIFFER: Let's first talk about the University of Michigan. Graduate students there and other employees are striking over COVID-19 precautions and the reopening of campus. Tell us what they're protesting. Or what are they advocating for?

NADWORNY: So the Graduate Employee Organization, or GEO, represents about 2,000 grad student instructors. They've been striking since last week. Their demands include, among other things, the universal right to work remotely. They also want more testing for coronavirus on campus. I talked with Amir Flieshmann. He's a graduate student who teaches political theory. He was out on the picket lines this morning at 5 a.m. He said they feel like they tried everything to get the attention of the university, and it didn't work.

AMIR FLIESHMANN: We've held protests. We've held a die-in. We've had car caravans. We've been in impact bargaining for months. This has gotten us nowhere. We felt that we had no other option but to engage in a strike.

PFEIFFER: And, Elissa, what do University of Michigan officials have to say about all this?

NADWORNY: Well, yesterday the U of M President Mark Schlissel asked the courts to intervene and send the grad students back to work. It's illegal in the state of Michigan for education workers to strike. And that ruling is expected by the end of the week. Student workers say until then, they'll continue to be on the picket lines.

PFEIFFER: All right. So the University of Michigan has thousands of students living in dorms and taking in-person classes. But just north of there is Michigan State in East Lansing, which is all online. Tell us more what's happening there.

NADWORNY: So at Michigan State University, there's been a big jump in cases since some students returned to the town last month, and that's despite the fact that they're not taking any classes in person. This weekend the university asked students living in town to quarantine for two weeks to help curb the spread. I've been keeping in touch with an MSU freshman named Sydnee Hrachovina. She's living in an off-campus apartment with her roommates. I called yesterday to ask her about the lockdown, and instead, she told me that she herself had just tested positive for coronavirus.

SYDNEE HRACHOVINA: I was trying to be safe. My roommates were trying to be safe. Like, we kind of avoided, like, the bigger scenes. Like, I wouldn't want to go somewhere where I could get it. But, like, even my roommates' friends - they didn't abide by that, and now it really just, like, bit them and us in the butt because we hung out with them and then they had it. So it really was a chain effect.

NADWORNY: All of her roommates are also positive though none of them have symptoms, and the three of them are isolating in their apartment. She told me she's already feeling a little restless.

PFEIFFER: I bet they are. So how do these two schools fit into what you're hearing across the country in your reporting?

NADWORNY: Well, what colleges are finding all over the country is that all it takes is a small group of students going to parties for the virus to really start making its way through social circles and into the surrounding community. You know, the other thing is the high positive cases in East Lansing show us that colleges don't actually have that much control over this as they might like - right? - because classes are already online there. So I think it's an important lesson for schools that have in-person classes because it shows there really aren't that many good options for shutting this semester down.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. She covers higher ed. Thanks for following this. We look forward to hearing more of your reports as you continue throughout the fall as school continues.

NADWORNY: Thanks so much, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.