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Saturday, December 02, 2023

COVID-19 positive students temporarily housed at Eagle Heights spark debate among graduate students, faculty

COVID-19 positive students are being temporarily housed in vacant apartments at the Eagle Heights complex, which houses many graduate students and faculty.

UW-Madison communications, health and housing staff held an online town hall Aug. 19 to address resident’s concerns. If residents wear masks and avoid interacting with COVID-19 positive students, “there’s really no real increase of risk of having people in these spaces,” Collin Pitts, associate director of campus health, said at the meeting. 

Residents disagree about the lack of risk of COVID-19 positive students will bring to Eagle Heights.

“We asked University Housing to take steps so that the community feels safer, but again and again, the Director of University Housing Jeff Novak told us that they don’t see any risk from the decision,” said Kerem Morgul, an Eagle Heights resident. “We have been angered by the disrespectful attitude that the university housing has displayed in the town halls.”

According to Eagle Heights residents, they were informed about this decision without consultation or input through an email sent by UW-Madison. 

“I know that people felt like they wanted to be consulted,” Novak said at the meeting. “I’m sorry if you feel that way. We made the best decision for our complete resident population and students here at the University of Wisconsin.”

UW-Madison did not identify which units will be used as isolation and quarantine space. Residents say that this is problematic for those navigating the apartment complex, especially residents with children. 

“The lack of transparency, lack of consultation with the community was one main source of frustration and the second main source of frustration is, I think, the lack of seriousness on part of university housing,” said Morgul. “If you are making a decision like this, then you know residents expect you to take it seriously and take risk mitigation strategies.” 

The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), the labor union for graduate employees at UW-Madison, shared concerns over Eagle Heights COVID-19 exposure in a series of tweets. 

“Eagle Heights apartments are old, with some units adjacent to each other per floor,” TAA said on Twitter. “The units share ventilation to the extent that residents can smell their neighbors’ cooking, or see cigarette smoke from the vent in their windowless bathroom.”

UW-Madison currently has quarantine and isolation space for up to 200 students, about a fifth of the 1,000 spaces available last fall.

Alternative spaces, such as dorms, that were used last year for COVID-19 positive students are now full of the new freshman class and a high number of sophomores who were unable to live on campus last year. Many hotels, including Union South’s hotel which was previously used as isolation housing, do not have availability due to football games and other weekend events. 

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Enforcement mechanisms at Eagle Heights have been established to assure residents safety. Students are allowed to go outdoors with a mask for a brief break or to get a COVID-19 test. 

A university security guard will oversee Eagle Heights every night, Novak said. They will check in with residents during the evening and monitor students' compliance with university regulations. 

“They are not really monitoring students,” said Morgul. “There has been a lot of misleading communication on the part of the university housing throughout the process.” 

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