Last Wednesday, after mounting pressure from county leadership and spiking COVID-19 case rates, UW-Madison moved all classes online until September 25th and quarantined two dorms through September 23rd.
The quarantined dorms, Witte and Sellery, are two of UW-Madison’s largest residential facilities. Just before quarantining, Witte reported a ten percent positivity rate for COVID-19 among residents, while Sellery reported a seventeen percent positivity rate.
That puts them well in excess of the Dane County average, which, at the time of the dorm’s quarantine, stood at about eight percent. Prior to UW-Madison’s return to campus, the county’s overall positivity rate hovered around two percent throughout August.
“I know not everyone is going to agree with this next statement, but I do believe that the decision to open campus this fall was the right one, for several reasons,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a press briefing today. “In-person instruction is the best way for most of us to learn, and we wanted to use it where we could safely. To date, we have no evidence of any transmission inside classroom settings.”
The deadline to withdraw and receive a full tuition refund for the fall semester was this past Friday, September 11th. But, Blank says that the University is looking to push back that deadline until at least the end of the two week quarantine period.
Some campus residents are reportedly packing and leaving campus to attend classes virtually, at least while the quarantine is in effect. UW-Madison says it’s planning to offer prorated housing reimbursements to students who move out for good.
“For those who feel that they want to withdraw, we want to allow them to withdraw and get their tuition back,” Blank says. “We’ve had a small number who’ve done that already and more may want to and we clearly don’t want to make that hard for them.”
Speaking at a press briefing last week, Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich warned that, if students leave the campus while infected, it could cause COVID flare-ups in their home towns.
“Returning them home has the risk of introducing the illness into their own home communities,” Heinrich says, “which is something to be considerate of as well.”
The university is also looking to ramp up its contact tracing and testing efforts in the coming weeks.
That comes after Dane County Executive Joe Parisi raised concerns that the University was offloading its untested students onto the County. Speaking with WORT last week, Parisi said, if cases continue to grow at the University, County health services could wind up picking up the slack.
“Our concern is, as their number of cases increase and they’re overwhelmed, that we will be required to pick up more and more of the work that needs to be done,” Parisi says.
In an open letter last week, Executive Parisi also pointed to difficulties getting UW-Madison students to cooperate with contact tracers. Asked about that difficulty on PBS Wisconsin’s Here and Now last Friday, Chancellor Blank suggested alternative measures.
“Students don’t want to do contact identification with their friends, because it means their friends are going to go into quarantine for the next two weeks,” Blank said. “There are a variety of technological apps that try to trace where people are and who they’re close to for extended periods of time. That technology is improving every week.”
UW-Madison isn’t the only major university experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. Several other Big Ten universities, many of whom returned to class before UW-Madison, have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases since returning to their campuses. Labor organizations, such as the graduate student union, the TAA, and some students, including the official student body government, have been asking for months for protections from the university by calling for a “moral restart.”
Still, Blank argues that none of the other universities that returned to in-person education have been hit as hard as the UW.
“Even if you compare us to a few of the schools that have had problems; Ohio State saw an increase, Illinois saw an increase…Our numbers went up faster than either of the two of them,” Blank says. “I refuse to believe that our students are worse behaved than those students. We might have just gotten unlucky, for a variety of reasons.”
In addition to the two residence halls, 22 of the UW’s fraternities and sororities, about half of the university’s total, have been placed under quarantine by Public Health Madison and Dane County.
Lori Reesor, Vice Chancellor for student affairs, said today that the University has been in contact with the Greek houses’ managing bodies and Public Health to determine the best response.
“The quarantine orders were issued by Dane County Public Health, so those are the orders that need to be followed,” Reesor said.
As of yesterday, the seven-day average positivity rate for on-campus UW-Madison students stood at 10.4%. More than 1500 on-campus students have tested positive for the coronavirus.
(Photo c/o Brian Standing)