Local Catholic universities head into fall semester with new safety measures

“Cruzer the Crusader,” Madonna University’s mascot, dons a mask as he helps students move into their dorms in late August. Life on campus will look different for students at Madonna and the University of Detroit Mercy, with socially distant classes, contact-tracing apps and COVID-19 screenings a regular part of the on-campus experience. (Courtesy of Madonna University)

At both the University of Detroit Mercy and Madonna University, new guidelines are in place to ensure a healthy and safe academic year 

DETROIT — As students at Madonna University and the University of Detroit Mercy head into the fall semester, school officials at Metro Detroit’s two Catholic universities are doing everything they can to create a safe, healthy learning environment while leaving room to adapt to the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic.

At Madonna University, based in Livonia, officials spent the summer researching best practices, creating eight different workgroups to develop guidelines for making campus life safe while maintaining the quality of education. 

The groups examined everything from academics to school gatherings and human resources, said Karen Sanborn, director of university communications for Madonna.

U of D Mercy requires anyone entering campus to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine before returning to campus. (Courtesy of the University of Detroit Mercy)

“The safety workgroup made the decision to establish a health center on campus focused solely on COVID-19-related activities, from testing to providing counsel as to what a student or employee should do if they are experiencing symptoms,” Sanborn said.

Thanks to Madonna’s highly renowned nursing school, Sanborn said the school already possessed the infrastructure and know-how to make the health center as robust as possible. 

Madonna also is implementing the ReturnSafe app, a contract-tracing app that uses Bluetooth to determine whether someone on campus has been within six feet of another person for 15 minutes or more. All information is confidential and sent only to the campus’s health officer. 

“It provides the fastest notification to those potentially exposed to a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case,” Sanborn said. “The more quickly we inform people of exposure and get them to isolate themselves, the greater our ability to contain an outbreak on campus.”

Madonna University will be using ReturnSafe, a contact-tracing app that will allow the campus health officer to track the spread of COVID-19 on campus. (Courtesy of Madonna University)

Both Madonna, which begins classes on Aug. 31, and Detroit Mercy, which began Aug. 25, are closely following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both schools’ officials said. While restricting large gatherings, practicing social distancing and masking are some of the common protocols, each school is developing its own unique safety measures. 

At Detroit Mercy’s McNichols campus in northwest Detroit, as well as at its dental school downtown, anyone entering campus must answer screening questions about COVID-19 symptoms, as well as having observed a 14-day period of enhanced social distancing, said Gary Erwin, the university’s associate vice president of marketing and communications. 

Everything across campus was deep-cleaned over the summer and ready for students to move in, Erwin said. 

“We have PPE (personal protective equipment) in place across campus,” Erwin said. “We have a low faculty-to-student ratio to begin with, but we made sure it is even better in terms of classrooms. As an example, if we had a lecture hall that usually sits 30 students, it might now just sit 10.”

Enrollment is down by about 100 students this fall, which makes some social distancing a little easier, Erwin said.

Both universities have implemented hybrid online and in-person classroom models, investing in infrastructure to allow students to remotely participate should a COVID-19 outbreak occur. 

“If we see a big influx in cases, our health and wellness experts will take a look at that, and if it requires us to transition online, we will do that,” Erwin said. “We are doing what we are supposed to do. It’s a very different environment in terms of what we are used to. Like other schools, we are doing the best we can.” 

Both schools, however, have emphasized that maintaining health and safety ultimately comes down to the behaviors and choices of individuals.

Both Madonna and Detroit Mercy have updated their student guidelines to reflect life during a pandemic. Madonna has published the “Madonna Cares Pledge,” asking all members of the community to commit to certain guidelines that reflect the school’s Franciscan core values. At Detroit Mercy, community members can fill out behavior reports if someone on campus is not complying by health and safety protocols.