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.”