With students from all over the state, country and world flocking back to Madison and life seemingly returning to a semblance of normalcy, there is great excitement for the year ahead in the minds of those who simply desire to return to the old. A return to some sense of normal is necessary, even. However, with the evolution of new COVID-19 variants and the rise of breakthrough infections despite vaccination, a mindless return to normal proves to be reckless. A more cautious safety plan — perhaps not to the same extent as earlier in the pandemic, but cautious still — may very well be necessary as we continue to learn more about this insidious pathogen.
Masking, masking, masking
No matter what side of the fence you sit on, one thing is for certain: No one enjoys wearing masks. However, it is a matter of social and personal responsibility. Society would not function if people disregarded such responsibilities. When city and university officials announced the return of indoor mask mandates, the response was mixed. Some members of the community, such as Dave O’Connor, a UW Medical Foundation professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, welcomed mask mandates in a Reddit post. Meanwhile, Instagram accounts like Badger Barstool and UnmaskUW played their part in stirring up opposition. Tens of students stood outside the Capitol on Sept. 3, seemingly in unorganized protest against mask mandates.
Despite opposition, masking — specifically proper masking — is the right way to go. Masks were barely visible during the football game vs Pennsylvania State, as people were packed into Camp Randall like sardines. The story indoors isn’t much better either. University Housing rules dictate that everyone should wear masks in common areas. Yet, if multiple people are in a resident’s room, masking is at their discretion. Some students wear masks that don’t cover their nose or wear masks around their chin like a diaper, none of which are effective. This way, students either cause themselves great harm, or put the vulnerable members of our campus community at risk.
Wearing masks the right way and wearing masks when in presence of others must be mandated, monitored and enforced appropriately by the university, as virus variants don’t care for individual freedoms. Effective masking in the present will only drive us closer to a (hopefully) maskless future.
Maintain course flexibility
Among the many nuances of the rising semester is the return to in-person classes, and with that, a revived sense of school normalcy. Herds of students will again meander throughout campus hallways and congregate inside packed lecture halls.
The restoration of in-person learning need not be a hasty one. Although the majority of the campus community is vaccinated, the once assured protection of vaccines remains unclear. In Dane County, from February to August, breakthrough COVID-19 cases among the fully vaccinated were documented. Guided by the research of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), breakthrough cases are no longer anomalous, with the vaccinated capable of spreading the virus to others.
Undoubtedly, many students and faculty could still contract COVID-19 throughout the semester, resulting in the absence from in-person classes for a minimum of 10 days. In a statement released by the Chancellor as of Aug. 18, students who contract COVID-19 during the academic year are advised to “contact [their] instructor to discuss options for access to course materials and activities ... [Any student] without adequate support should contact their academic advisor, the course department chair or the Dean of Students Office.”
This response is weak and unclear. Our university needs to set plans for not if but when students contract COVID-19. Discussing course options after infection is too late, leaving our student body in disarray.
Do not be mistaken — the return of in-person classes is a necessary step forward. As was a common complaint throughout the entirety of the pandemic thus far, online learning will never compare to the academic and social value afforded by in-person classes. Nonetheless, we are simply not ready to leap into the course structure of years prior.
We must prepare for the possibility of much of our student body and staff getting infected. Rather than putting the responsibility on infected students, the university should institute online course options accessible to all students. We must maintain flexibility in this transition period, preparing now rather than later to aid students and uphold UW-Madison’s educational standards.
UW’s Devolving Testing System
As it stands, only the unvaccinated are required to test weekly or face non-academic disciplinary action. However, testing is still an essential service during a pandemic, and as much as it may feel like that is passing, we still need to be on guard against the virus and sufficient testing is a prerequisite for success.
While only unvaccinated students are mandated to test, there is still going to be a remarkably high demand for fast and easy testing on campus. This will likely be due to the increasing number of breakthrough cases, a growing source of anxiety on campus.
Currently, there are only four testing centers open: one of them being the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, on the west side of campus, which is not exactly in the close vicinity to many at UW-Madison. The university has also decided to scrap the usage of the saliva test, which yielded fast and accurate results, for self-administered nasal swabs booked by appointment only days in advance. These tests can take up to 48 hours to yield results.
Last year’s testing system was far from perfect, but it was a viable mode which helped give fast results to students and faculty in a relatively painless manner. For one reason or another, the university has completely abandoned said system for a rather bloated one, filled with prolonged wait times for results and appointments.
If the University of Wisconsin-Madison is truly dedicated to protecting students from this virus, they would prioritize fast yielding, walk-in and accessible testing for all. However, at this juncture, that seems an unlikely possibility.
When the university announced mandatory testing for unvaccinated individuals, we all breathed a sigh of relief. After a strict spring semester of mandatory testing for all — with tight restrictions on access to campus facilities for the untested — many campus community members expected a similar rollout. Who wants to go to class with an unvaxxed, untested student anyways?
“Those who are required to test weekly but fail to do so will be held accountable,” the university promised us.
However, this “accountability” soon revealed itself as a closed, non-transparent process where the university handles infractions quietly on a case-by-case basis — sort of the opposite of accountability, right?
UW-Madison will not limit access to campus buildings for students who fail to meet testing requirements this fall, instead relying on non academic disciplinary measures. Employees who fail to meet the weekly testing requirement will be referred to the university’s employee disciplinary process.
And the infamous Badger Badge? That’s gone too. Students that routinely fail to be tested will be subject to Act 17, the state statute and administrative code on student non academic disciplinary procedures that UW adheres to. Yes, students can be suspended or even expelled, but that’s up to the university to decide. There’s no “three strike system.”
What’s more, there’s no system in place to alert professors or students — even the immunocompromised ones — that they will be sharing a class with an untested student. The best we can hope for is a call from a contact tracer.
Looking back, the university should have continued its commitment to the Safer Badgers app, no matter how expensive it would be to renew its use of the software. For now, UW-Madison needs to be firm with its unvaccinated population, inform the students, faculty and staff that are affected by the presence of unvaccinated students and develop a transparent process to respond to infractions.
We might not have a fall semester if they don’t.