Emma Williams is a sophomore at UW-Madison. She says that, despite concerns over COVID-19, a shortened fall semester and scaled-back campus activities, she’s happy to be back on campus.
“Being that I’m an out of state student, I’m happy to be back with my friends. At least I’m here, that’s all I can say.”
The University of Wisconsin hasn’t hosted any in-person classes on its flagship Madison campus since March. At the beginning of the pandemic, UW-Madison announced that students would be finishing out the spring 2020 semester online.
Due to the unexpected closure of campuses, the UW system has been put under significant financial strain. UW-Madison alone took a $150 million revenue loss as a result of the pandemic, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The financial squeeze continued as fall sports were cancelled or rescheduled.
In June, during the midst of these financial troubles, UW-Madison announced it would be bringing its more than 40,000 students back for in-person education during the fall semester. As part of its “Smart Restart” plan, the university is limiting class sizes, moving larger classes online and stopping in-person classes after Thanksgiving break.
Tyson Holtz, a Senior graduating this December, says the university’s decision to bring students back to campus was primarily driven by financial concerns.
“They definitely weren’t thinking about the students, it was definitely in the best interest of the university,” Holtz says. “Because they know they probably wouldn’t survive, because obviously they don’t have the money coming in from football right now. So if they didn’t have the money coming in from housing and other on-campus sites, they’d probably be really struggling.”
Meanwhile, student labor groups challenge the reasons for in-person classes. Last month, the University Labor Council, a coalition of university union groups, issued a statement calling the program into question.
The group wrote that Smart Restart “forces us to expose ourselves, our loved ones, and the Madison community for a paycheck.”
Speaking with WORT last month, Alejandra Canales, the co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association of UW-Madison and a member of the Labor Council, said that hosting smaller classes in person shifts the risk to the school’s Teaching Assistants.
“From the grad worker perspective, there is a lot of concern that we’ve been hearing in the TAA about how that pushes the responsibility and the risk onto TAs and their smaller discussion sections,” Canales says.
As part of its COVID-19 control efforts, UW-Madison administered tests to all students living in campus housing on move-in day. They’ll also be conducting bi-weekly testing of residence halls throughout the fall semester.
The university has also laid out social distancing and infection prevention guidelines for students to follow. But, senior Danielle Wendricks says that asking UW students to follow public health guidelines is a failing strategy.
“I’m worried,” Wendricks says. “I think the university can put precautions into place, but it’s up to the students. And, as college students, it’s really hard to not hang out with our friends and not do things. I think it’s ultimately going to come down to what the students do and I don’t know if they’re going to actually adhere to the guidelines.”
According to data from UW-Madison, 49 students tested positive today, 17 of which live in residence halls and 32 of which live off-campus.
(Photo c/o Brian Standing)
(The broadcast version of this story incorrectly referred to the Teaching Assistants Association as the Teachers Association of America. This story has also been updated to clarify that only students in campus housing received compulsory COVID-19 testing at the beginning of the year. WORT regrets the errors.)