Western Michigan University students hopeful in-person classes will return in 2021

KALAMAZOO, MI — Students at Western Michigan, who will now pivot to online learning a few days earlier than they planned, are hopeful they will be able to return to campus in January.

On Monday, Nov. 16, as a line of cars grew at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site set up on campus, students prepared to leave campus. Their departure is a few days earlier than expected, after a public health order announced by state officials Sunday canceled all in-person learning for colleges for a three-week period, amid rising coronavirus cases.

Griffin Reifsteck, a freshman at WMU, said he struggles more with virtual classes and prefers in-person learning.

“It does make it a bit harder, but it is what it is,” Reifsteck said. “We have to do what we need to do to keep safe.”

The state’s order, which takes effect Wednesday, will only affect three days of classes for most WMU students, who were already scheduled to end the in-person portion of the fall semester on Friday, Nov. 20. The university planned to have students finish their semester online after Thanksgiving break — to prevent a large number of students traveling and returning to the university.

Reifsteck will leave Western on Friday, and spend the holidays at home with his family. What the next semester and 2021 in general holds is still unknown, he said. But he will come back to his dorm in January if possible, Reifsteck said.

During a Sunday evening press conference, state officials outlined the three-week period of new restrictions, including the ban on in-person classes for colleges and high schools in the state. The order also suspends high school sports and dine-in service at Michigan restaurants and bars.

The new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ order came as cases of COVID-19 are surging throughout the state. Michigan recorded 44,019 new cases last week, a seven-day average of 6,288 cases, up 49% from the previous seven-day average of 4,230.

The new state restrictions take effect on Wednesday and last through the Thanksgiving holiday and until Dec. 8.

Related: Here’s what changes in Michigan under new COVID-19 restrictions, in place for 3 weeks

As of Wednesday, Nov. 11, the university reported a seven-day average of 23.5 new coronavirus cases per day, according to the COVID dashboard. On the same date, the university’s positive test rate was 9.2%.

Starting Wednesday, only classes involving health care programs may continue to be offered in person if they cannot be conducted via distance education, President Edward Montgomery said in a Sunday update sent to the campus community.

“The rapid rise of cases combined with cold weather and the anticipated holidays are a concerning mix of factors that can make our current situation worse,” Montgomery said. “We’ve proven this semester we know what to do; let’s continue to do it.”

The university also extended drive-thru testing planned at the Sindecuse Health Center to begin Monday. The drive-thru testing will run through Thursday, Nov. 19. Students should call 269-387-3287 to schedule their test. Those who get tested will receive a $5 certificate to spend at participating downtown businesses, Montgomery said.

Late Monday morning, a steady stream of cars flowed through the testing site on Western’s campus.

Sisters Grace and Claire Stibich, who walked back to their dorm after being tested, said the state’s latest order does not greatly affect their plans for the remainder of the fall semester.

“We’re actually going online next week, so it’s not really that big of a deal,” Grace Stibich said. The sisters, who share an apartment, said they plan to stay on campus next semester, and will attend classes in whatever mode they are offered.

Grace’s job at WMU’s recreation center will continue, but Claire’s on-campus tour job will end this week under the COVID-19 restrictions, she said.

“It’s kind of sad, but I don’t mind it too much,” Claire Stibich said. “I can focus on school a bit more.”

Another student, Sarah Meierdirks, said she sees universities as a “hotspot” for COVID-19 and thinks it’s a good idea for students to disperse. But, at the same time, balancing life with online courses can be challenging, she said.

“It can be kind of hard when the place that I work and the place that I relax are the same,” Meierdirks said.

Eric Rossio, a senior, said there is not much he can do to control the situation. The finance major said he learns better in-person rather than online.

“I don’t like online learning but what are you going to do?” Rossio said. “I feel like (2020 is) the worst when it come to senior years. All the fun college experience got taken away. But there’s not much I can do about it, so I’m just going to move on.”

The university recently launched a wellness platform to help students cope with stress and anxiety. YOU at Western allows students to explore their strengths and areas for growth across three domains: Succeed: Focused on academics and career success; Thrive: Focused on physical and mental health; Matter: Focused on identifying purpose and establishing community and social connections.

“It’s such a comprehensive approach that really focuses on the holistic student experience,” said Diane Anderson, vice president for student affairs. “We think about college being an opportunity for students to find their purpose. When you find that career, that passion, that discipline that gets you excited, it makes a huge difference in your motivation in terms of how you focus your energy.”

Also on MLive:

Coronavirus testing not mandatory for most Michigan college students heading home

EMU extends Thanksgiving break after state restriction of in-person classes

Monday, Nov. 16, coronavirus data by Michigan county: Genesee, Kent, Ottawa, Allegan now above 15% positivity

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