Whether college campuses can stay open safely during this pandemic is becoming more uncertain as the fall semester gets underway.
On Monday, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank sent an urgent directive to undergrad students: limit your social activity for the next 14 days or risk campus shutting down.
“We’ve reached the point where we need to quickly flatten the curve of infection, or we will lose the opportunity to keep campus open to students this semester,” Blank said.
Blank sent her warning after COVID-19 cases among students spiked last week, with more than 100 positive test results each on Saturday and Sunday, and an increasing positivity rate of 7.8%.
For the next two weeks, Blank is asking students to limit in-person interaction to essential tasks. But she stopped short of suspending in-person classes.
Matthew Mitnick, chair of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), says Blank’s directive doesn’t go far enough.
“Because it attributes the spread to students and points the finger to students when the university is practically encouraging violations to occur through in-person classes and having the residence halls at 90% capacity,” Mitnick said.
The ASM wrote a letter to administrators last week urging a switch to all online classes.
Timothy Yu is a professor at UW-Madison and president of the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He also thinks moving to online-only instruction is the right call.
“I think it’s inevitable because it’s one of the few tools we have left to restrict student movement further,” Yu said. “I think it would be wise because it would send to students the signal, hey we’re really serious, we have to stay in place a few weeks. And it would protect faculty and staff if students are getting infected and coming to campus.”
UW-Madison officials justify continuing with in-person classes because, they say, most of the COVID-19 spread appears to have happened at off-campus social gatherings, not academic activities.
UW-Milwaukee isn’t dealing with an outbreak like Madison. But leaders there are also trying to convince students to be cautious. UWM Chief of Police Joseph LeMire spoke during a city COVID-19 press briefing on Tuesday. He says his department is ramping up patrols to remind students in off-campus housing that they should not throw big parties.
“We’re providing a service where we’re getting out there in the afternoon and the early evening hours, where we can see if there isn’t social distancing or masks in place,” LeMire said. “Where if it looks like there might be a social gathering about to take place — we’re intervening at a lower level, a more education level, helping them understand this isn’t just about you.”
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik said her department received complaints about student parties over the long weekend, but she didn’t say which school they came from.
LeMire says students may face disciplinary action if they violate UWM’s COVID-19 safety pledge.
But it is important to note that Marquette and UWM are currently limiting testing mainly to symptomatic students, which means there may be asymptomatic positive cases going undetected. Madison has a more thorough testing plan.
UWM will soon scale up its COVID-19 monitoring, with routine testing of students living in dorms.
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