“Good morning and welcome to the Spring 2022 semester. We wish you a safe and successful start to the new year,” read the first post of the semester on the official University of Wisconsin-Madison Instagram on Tuesday. The post came amid discussion and concern among the campus community about the university’s COVID-19 response plan for the spring semester.
In-person instruction has remained central to UW-Madison’s protocol, according to university spokesperson Meredith McGlone. The university has held that this is due largely to the fact that vaccines and boosters greatly decrease the risk of severe illness.
Afterall, approximately 95% of Madison students, faculty and staff are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with the first vaccine series, per a university COVID-19 update.
Even so, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is more contagious and its emergence coincided with the highest reported rates of the virus for UW-Madison in mid-December since September 2021.
Embracing proven strategies to reduce spread and providing more support for students, faculty and employees is the main focus of the COVID-19 response plan, according to the university.
Professor Shanan Peters in the Geo-Science department remains hopeful about the plan, describing it as “a reasonable plan for the start of the semester — a combination of testing and basic preventative measures to launch the start of an otherwise mostly normal semester is the right move.”
Some other faculty members agree, praising the Madison community for the vaccination rate and the responsibility shown in masking and distancing for the greater good.
Other responses to the plan have been more critical. The Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) has made demands including initial 2-week remote learning at the beginning of the semester, stricter masking requirements and more effective masks provided to all those involved in campus life and broader COVID-19 accommodations for faculty and staff, among others. The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) and BIPOC Coalition both stand behind these demands.
On Tuesday, ASM followed suit by releasing a statement urging administrators to adopt hybrid class structures that would allow for greater flexibility and “protections for the most vulnerable members of [the] campus community.”
While the campus response to concerns insists that the university is encouraging instructors to give students flexibility when it comes to the inability to attend in-person classes, ASM maintains that encouragement is not a strong enough answer to the dangers of the pandemic. It remains unclear whether these calls to action made by the TAA, ASM and BIPOC Coalition will be met with changes or additions to the response plan by the university.
One of the important facets of the university’s approach to slowing the spread is the identification of cases. PCR tests through University Health Services (UHS) were available for students free of charge all fall semester, and that practice is continuing through the spring, with over 5,000 available tests a week. Prior to the beginning of the semester, students were also asked to test before and after coming back onto campus in an attempt to contain the number of outside COVID cases that would otherwise be brought into Dane County.
In addition to the on-campus PCR tests, no-cost take-home antigen tests are also being offered to Madison students and employees with a limit of one per week. Pickups for these antigen tests are available at Memorial Union and Union South.
“The take-home kits provide added convenience because they can be kept on hand to use when needed,” highlighted McGlone.
Test results of self-administered antigen tests are not required to be reported in accordance with state policy according to the university.
Instructions for when to test are also suggested on the university’s response plan webpage, urging students who are having symptoms or who have been a close contact of a confirmed positive case to utilize the antigen tests when needed and obtain PCR test results when available.
Availability of antigen tests serves as a way to allow students to more quickly identify cases and quarantine themselves. They also give UHS a chance to conduct contact tracing to locate other people who may be affected by coronavirus according to the university.
The plan also includes preventative measures, such as extending the on-campus indoor mask mandate through March 1. This decision is made based on current conditions in Dane County as well as careful communication with Public Health Madison & Dane County, said McGlone. This extension is in line with the most recent CDC guidelines per preventing spread.
Dane County recently extended the Face Covering Emergency Order until March 1, 2022. This order requires face coverings on public transportation as well as in enclosed spaces that are open to the public.
The university is also offering surgical masks to students when they are picking up their antigen tests. The most important part of the mask requirement is to frequently check that masks fit well, are worn correctly and are as protective as possible.
“The university’s response to COVID-19 is a team effort involving staff and leaders from across campus, in consultation with campus, local and state public health experts,” McGlone said.
According to McGlone, the university remains focused on providing resources and support to employees and students to enable them to manage their personal risk while resuming daily activities.
This approach seems to be effective leading into the first week of the spring semester. On Wednesday, the university recorded 69 COVID-19 cases among the campus population, according to the UW-Madison COVID-19 dashboard; This is an increase from Tuesday, Jan. 25 when 27 students and employees tested positive.