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Winter in Hillsdale. Nathan Stein­meyer | Courtesy

Hillsdale College is preparing a legal case to defend its con­sti­tu­tional right to have in-person instruction should state offi­cials attempt to extend the current pro­hi­bition into the spring semester, said a statement from the college on Wednesday.

“In-person instruction is a pre­cious thing,” the statement said. “Edu­cation at its best is impos­sible without it. The college regrets the sus­pension of in-person instruction during the final weeks of this semester.

Courses moved online on Nov. 18, fol­lowing an order by Michigan’s health department that banned in-person classes at col­leges and uni­ver­sities in the state. The college com­plied with the order but kept the campus open, meaning that stu­dents con­tinued to live in dorms, eat in the dining hall, and study in the library.

“To be close and to learn together is the most important thing in a college, more important than faculty teaching actually,” Hillsdale College Pres­ident Larry Arnn said during an interview with Alex Marlow of Bre­itbart News on Nov. 24. “So, we have a right to it now. There needs to be a good reason not to do it, and we can’t find one ourselves.”

As of Wednesday, with two weeks of classes and finals left in the 2020 fall semester, 13 stu­dents are in contact iso­lation, five of whom have tested pos­itive for COVID-19. Addi­tionally, four stu­dents are in iso­lation as they await test results. 

Over the course of the semester, 216 stu­dents have tested pos­itive for COVID-19. So far, no stu­dents who have con­tracted the virus have been hos­pi­talized and the majority have suf­fered only mild symptoms. 

“The college imple­mented its policy of quar­an­tining and contact tracing this semester under com­pulsion by state and local health author­ities and has done so under protest,” the college’s statement said. “Oper­ating under threat of imminent closure, the college has done every­thing in its power to stay open and in-person. Had it been at liberty to operate as it saw fit, quar­antine would have been treated as a pre­cision tool rather than a blunt instrument. But the college was not at liberty. It operated as it did in order to allow stu­dents on campus with in-person instruction to the maximum extent pos­sible amidst the ever-changing avalanche of new regulations.”

The college was well-pre­pared for stu­dents to come back to campus in Sep­tember, according to Director of Health and Wellness Brock Lutz. Over the summer, mul­tiple changes were made to campus to accom­modate Michigan directives.

As part of the school’s coro­n­avirus response, the college pur­chased and installed modular ion­ization tech­nology, special air filters for dor­mi­tories, class­rooms, and other facil­ities. The college also pur­chased four Clorox 360 machines to dis­infect rooms, equipment for ven­ti­lation, oxygen, cough sup­pression, suction, and neb­u­lization, and oximeters and ther­mometers were placed in every building on campus, according to the college’s reopening plan, pub­lished at returnplan.hillsdale.edu.

Addi­tionally, the college part­nered with the Hillsdale Hos­pital to expedite com­mu­ni­cation with healthcare pro­fes­sionals and fulfill all testing and antibody testing needs. Over the semester, numerous quar­antine accom­mo­da­tions were met, cus­todial staff increased dis­in­fecting fre­quency on campus, and food ser­vices changed to accom­modate social dis­tancing, occu­pancy restric­tions, and san­itary pro­tocol, the return plan said. 

“Pre­cau­tions that were estab­lished were guided by pre­serving in-person learning, a duty to protect those who are vul­nerable, love for each other, and direc­tives from the local health department reg­u­la­tions,” Lutz said.

Lutz attributed Hillsdale’s success to a common under­standing of the school’s mission.

“The main reason we were able to remain in-person as long as we did is because we are all com­mitted to Hillsdale College and its pur­poses,” Lutz said. “Everyone began the semester with an excitement and ded­i­cation to in-person classes. There is no com­parison to the learning that takes place with pro­fessors and fellow stu­dents both inside and outside the classroom during face-to-face engagement.”

Senior Class Pres­ident Braden VanDyke saw the toll of online courses in the 2020 spring semester. He said he was grateful that stu­dents had the oppor­tunity to return to campus this year.

“I cannot over­state the impor­tance of in-person edu­cation, in-person friend­ships, and in-person engagement of the com­munity,” VanDyke said. “Nothing else would satisfy our very American impulse to form asso­ci­a­tions and build a com­munity. More har­row­ingly, to do oth­erwise would be to capit­ulate to and accel­erate society’s attempt to per­suade you that you are alone, small, iso­lated, weak, and of dimin­ishing value. Those things are not what Hillsdale stands for.”

VanDyke said he wasn’t sur­prised that Hillsdale allowed stu­dents to return in person.

“If any college were to host in-person classes it was going to be Hillsdale College,” VanDyke said. “Hind­sight being 20/20, and knowing all that we know now about the science and these unprece­dented times, I have a feeling Dr. Arnn would have strongly con­sidered doing the same last spring.”

According to VanDyke, student life changed dras­ti­cally this semester. He said, however, the senior class is lucky they got the oppor­tunity to expe­rience their last fall semester on campus. 

“For seniors espe­cially, they have lost events that they will never get back. Yet, this senior class is par­tic­u­larly resilient,” VanDyke said. “Seniors, above all, under­stand the value of the friend­ships they have made at Hillsdale and in speaking for my class, the seniors wouldn’t have missed the chance to have in-person edu­cation for the world. It is important for closure that the senior class be able to fully lean into their last moments of their Hillsdale College expe­rience before they com­mence to the next chapter of their lives.”

Hillsdale’s freshmen faced unique chal­lenges as they entered college during a pan­demic, said Rachel Marinko, Hillsdale’s res­ident life coor­di­nator and house director of Olds Res­i­dence. Despite the set­backs, Marinko said freshmens’ expe­ri­ences weren’t dulled this semester.

“I think the most important thing about being a college anyways is about being together,” Marinko said. “The friend­ships that are formed are the same as they would have been if we had home­coming and if we had a garden party and so on.”

Having grown accus­tomed to the virtual world since the pan­demic first hit, many incoming freshmen found ways to vir­tually connect over the summer. The freshman class made mul­tiple group chats and hosted class-wide Zoom calls before they got to school in the fall. Marinko said the unique expe­rience and chal­lenges that accom­panied COVID-19 enhanced rela­tion­ships in the freshman class.

“A lot of freshmen even asked me and some of my RA team to Zoom call with them before we got to school,” Marinko said. “I’ve never seen any class before them that were as con­nected coming in.” 

This con­nection, Marinko said, is para­mount to the college experience. 

“There’s nothing that can replace the in-person rela­tion­ships that people form with each other,” Marinko said. “I have friends in grad school who have been online and unable to meet a single person. But there’s nothing like sleeping together in the same dorm and using the same bathroom and sharing all those expe­ri­ences that come with college.”

Freshman swimmer Phoebe Johnston said the school’s extensive safety mea­sures did what no other college could have done this semester: allowed her to enjoy college.

“I used to be torn between col­leges,” Johnston said. “But now, I’m glad I chose Hillsdale. If I had gone any­where else, I’d be stuck at home and missing out on college.”

Hillsdale was unlike any other college when she first dis­covered it, Johnston said. Now, in the time of coro­n­avirus, she said she con­siders the edu­cation she’s receiving at Hillsdale even more valuable.

“In Western Her­itage, my pro­fessor uses the things that we’re reading about and ties them into today,  espe­cially the dangers when gov­ernment goes too far and is imposing rules that it doesn’t need to,” Johnston said. “So through that edu­cation, I’m able to look at COVID-19 not just from an emo­tional per­spective, but also look at it from an outside per­spective that the issues that we’re facing today are nothing new.”

Although the resounding attitude on campus is one of thanks­giving, this semester hasn’t been easy for stu­dents. Student Activ­ities Board Director Zane Mabry ’20 grad­uated this summer. Now that he’s rounding out his fifth year at Hillsdale, Mabry said he’s seen the impact COVID-19 had on campus morale.

“It seems like people have been more stressed about things other than school, like what’s going on in the world or with COVID-19 specif­i­cally,” Mabry said. “It seems like that’s that’s more on the fore­front of peo­ple’s minds.”

Nev­er­theless, Mabry said stu­dents wouldn’t have been better off if classes had moved online earlier in the semester.

“I think just about everyone that I’ve heard from has been extremely thankful that they were able to be here for the 12 or 13 weeks,” Mabry said. “If classes were online, I think it would have been worse for everyone. Far fewer people would have been on campus in the first place. That com­munity wouldn’t have been there.”

Mabry said that the college met expec­ta­tions for the semester, even though it was severely limited. 

“Bla­tantly flaunting man­dates that are issued by the state gov­ernment is not keeping the stu­dents best interest in mind because the school could lose accred­i­tation or get shut down, which wouldn’t help any student,” Mabry said. “There are a lot of dif­ferent pres­sures being put on the college to do dif­ferent things. The response isn’t going to be perfect, but they’ve done the best they can.”

Moving into the spring semester, Lutz said the college will con­tinue to adapt, modify, and adjust its plans in order to keep con­ducting in-person classes.

“The college will be reviewing the policies and pro­ce­dures from the semester to determine how we can improve our response to COVID-19 and how we can make next semester as healthy and enjoyable as pos­sible, as we plan to return, learn, live, and grow together in our Hillsdale com­munity,” Lutz said. “We will need to con­tinue to be safe and take pre­cau­tions for those who may be vul­nerable on-campus and in the Hillsdale com­munity. I’m con­fident we will provide a healthy and safe second semester.”