As we have all experienced over these six months, the COVID-19 crisis has upended normalcy. From remote working to virtual learning, the loss of healthcare to the loss of loved ones, the coronavirus has forced us all to operate under a new, frightening reality. At the same time, it has brought into crisp focus our society’s greatest inequities and our leaders’ misplaced priorities.
With over 1,700 cases and the semester barely under way, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has already lost its fight against COVID-19. We lost it because of our administration’s inexplicable insistence that it was a fight we could win, that the fight was worth the risk at all. And we, at The Daily Cardinal, cannot sit idly by as these reckless decisions are being made — as inadequate leadership from our administration continues to jeopardize the lives of students, faculty and the greater Madison community.
It is unacceptable to give students two hours notice before a two-week lockdown. It is unacceptable to not release information regarding the criteria for a campus shutdown. It is unacceptable to continue to follow a plan that endangers peoples’ health and wellbeing, for the virus has shown to have lasting effects on vital organs and mental health.
Simply put, UW’s blatant disregard for human life — specifically, the lack of care for the immunocompromised, BIPOC students and other vulnerable populations — is humiliating.
Certainly there is plenty of responsibility to go around. Social gatherings that violate public health guidelines have been common on and around campus, and those who find themselves at bars or in crowded apartments undermine the best efforts of our community to keep itself safe. That behavior is selfish and dangerous, as the university has not hesitated to point out. As disappointing as those individual actions may be, the fact remains: This all could have been prevented. If the plan, as it seems to have been, was dependent on the collective restraint of the entire student body, then it wasn’t a plan — it was wishful thinking.
To stake the success of the semester — and the safety of all of Madison — on that wishful thinking was, at best, a damning display of incompetence and unwillingness to listen to the many, many people who knew exactly what would happen and said so. At worst, it was a bad-faith attempt to collect as many tuition and housing checks as possible before blaming the inevitable campus shutdown on student behavior.
The UW administration had over five months after the March closure to plan this semester. In that time, they could have sought to follow the best advice of local and national public health experts. They could have listened honestly to the faculty, teaching assistants and undergraduates who voiced their concerns about the restart. They could have focused the dogged, passionate efforts of this university’s staff on planning a robust and engaging virtual semester.
Instead, Chancellor Blank and her fellow administrators spent five months squinting at the writing on the wall while they accelerated towards it. We can think of no greater betrayal of the Wisconsin Idea than the danger UW-Madison has brought to the city it calls home. We can think of no starker contrast to the sifting and winnowing our campus strives for than such an arrogant and insistent lack of foresight.
Now, after just five days of in-person classes, the “Smart Restart” has unraveled. Professors are scrambling to shift classes online. Two residence halls and 26 Greek life chapters are under quarantine. Local officials are pleading with University officials to close campus. Conveniently, administrators have now dodged and equivocated their way to today’s 100% tuition refund deadline. The unraveling of events has made it abundantly clear that UW cares more about budgets and profits over the protection of its students.
As more than a quarter of Wisconsin’s record-breaking 1,547 new daily cases came from UW-Madison students on Thursday, the situation in Madison is increasingly worrying. Continued spread among off-campus communities endangers all of Madison and Dane County, jeopardizing lives, local businesses and any return to normalcy. This doomed attempt to reopen will ultimately saddle local authorities with an outbreak that continues long after campus facilities close.
In short, what we all had feared — what we knew would be inevitable — has come true. The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases, the lockdown of campus dorms, with the misdirection of faulting individualistic behavior, UW-Madison has now fallen to the same fate as other universities around the country. And if leadership had made responsible decisions from the outset of this crisis, that is to protect its students and the greater Madison community, we would not be here, and we should not forget that.
UW-Madison must move to fully online instruction for the entirety of the semester. A “pause” of in-person classes for the next two weeks is simply not enough. Frankly, it is hard to imagine what would be enough at this point. The cat is out of the bag. The virus is alive and well in Madison.
The Daily Cardinal does not want to write obituaries. We will no longer accept being gaslit by those in positions of power. And we certainly will not consent to choosing between our education and our health — to believe this is a logical decision to be made.
If the University truly cared about the wellbeing of its students more than lining their pockets, they would have put in place a Moral Reopening — grounded in decency, equity and accessibility — from the get-go. Instead, we now live in the reality they chose to create.