Following a decrease in positive cases during the two week hiatus, UW-Madison will resume in-person classes and activities on Sept. 26.
The return to in-person activities comes with some new caveats including the expansion of testing capacity with a reduction in turnaround time, working towards reduced concentration in residence halls with the option for more students to occupy single rooms and more limited, phased in in-person instruction than when classes started on Sept. 2.
Sellery and Witte residents were also relieved of their two-week quarantine on Wednesday morning, but with restrictions including prohibiting students from visiting residence halls other than their own, weekly testing starting the week of Sept. 28 and the reopening of all dining halls with limited capacity.
“Quarantine is not a good option,” said Chancellor Rebecca Blank in a media briefing on Wednesday. “Our students don’t like it. We would prefer not to do it, but if we see dorms spiking and our testing shows that we’ve got numbers that we think need to be dealt with, we will quarantine again, and we’ve been really clear about that with our students.”
Residents in Sellery and Witte underwent three rounds of testing since move-in, with the most recent tests taken earlier this week. While representatives in the media release did not disclose specific positive rates in Sellery and Witte, they did mention that positive rates have greatly decreased in this week’s round of testing.
“We’ve had very, very low numbers in the last couple of days, which is just great, exactly what we wanted to see as a result of all the actions we have taken,” Blank said.
As of publication, the Smart Restart dashboard indicated for Sept. 23 that the positive rate for students tested on campus that day was 2 percent, with 13 students and no faculty members testing positive in on-campus testing and 10 students testing positive through off-campus testing. The 7-day positive on-campus testing rate is 5.5 percent.
Blank remains confident that the decision to open campus for the Fall 2020-21 semester was the right one, and that the community consensus is that UW-Madison students and faculty want the campus to remain open.
“Why have we not gone fully virtual?” said Blank. “For the simple reason that we continue to believe that there is a real value to in-person classes when we can open safely, and as we’ve indicated we have not seen any evidence of transmission in the classroom. We have some number of classes that have to be in person in order for them to control the requirements, some of the clinical classes, certain lab classes that require specialized equipment, that type of thing.”
Blank has been in conflict with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi recently over this same decision to open campus, as Parisi credits a surge in the state’s cases — surpassing the 100,000 mark on Sunday — to UW System’s decision to opt for in-person instruction.
“It’s not helpful to be in opposition and tension with county officials and with the county exec,” said Blank. “We need to be working in partnership together. They need to be helping us with the off campus spaces, we need to be working hard with the on campus spaces, and I’ve tried hard to communicate that to Joe Parisi.”
In the briefing, UW-Madison Provost John Karl Scholz also showed strong support for in-person classes, noting the shortcomings of all online instruction.
“The other issue is that not all of our students have access to the technology to support remote learning, as well as, spaces suitable for study. Some of them are in crowded, crowded living situations and the like,” said Scholz. “So, working with instructors [and] departments, we are continuing to try to offer a mixture of opportunities that our students can take advantage of.”
While the campus COVID-19 situation has improved for now, students are required to still adhere to all public health protocols, including social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing in compliance with Wis. Gov. Tony Evers’ revamp of the state’s public health emergency.
“I just want to repeat my gratitude to faculty, staff and students for their behavior over the last two weeks,” said Blank. “It really has proven we can bring the numbers down, and it is up to us in the next several weeks to show that we are doing things in a different enough way that we keep those numbers down. I would ask that all members of the campus community understand the importance of these health protocols and adhere to them.”
To continue to combat the spread of COVID-19, UW-Madison will continue to test students in residence halls once a week, expand contract tracing, continue surveillance testing and resume operations in the Unions, Libraries and recreation facilities with limited capacity.