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Students to return to UW System campuses but with pandemic precautions

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – The UW System announced the intention for students and faculty to return to campus for the upcoming fall semester with recommendations on how its 13 university branches should adjust amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The UW System laid out several recommendations, including having in-person instruction to fewer than 50 students online for classes of more than 50 students, encourage or require face coverings, social distancing measures, contingency plans for a potential outbreak and encouragement for campuses to end the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

The recommendations announced this week prioritize as much in-person instruction as possible. Most colleges in Wisconsin and around the country were forced to quickly adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic during the past spring semester.

Mike Haen is a graduate student at UW-Madison working toward his PhD within the English Department at the university and also instructs undergraduates. Haen believes that while the rapid switch from in-class instruction to online instruction had steep learning curves for both students and faculty during the spring semester, it better prepared them than if they were to go into the 2020-2021 academic year without any prior experience of what an online-heavy world looks like.

“I think we’ve built up a better understanding of what works and what maybe doesn’t,” Haen said. “I think for the student experience, you’re able to create a classroom community a little bit more in a face-to-face setting than sort of an online space.”

Haen said the UW System recommendations are making the best of a difficult situation for all stakeholders involved.

“I think it was the best way of sort of finding the middle ground,” Haen said. “I think doing full online courses could have really negatively impacted particularly undergraduate students’ feelings about the value of the education that they were receiving.”

UW-Whitewater was the first university within the system to announce its intention to bring students back for the fall.

“The decision builds confidence with our public, letting them know that we are doing what’s necessary in order to move us forward,” UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dr. Dwight Watson told CBS 58 in an interview.

Dr. Watson said being proactive about the decision to bring back students and faculty in the fall has helped spur the conversation around the issues that need to be addressed to make the return a safe success.

“Right now what we’re doing is slotting each one of those topics into action plans and we’re meeting daily to move forward the actions [for re-entry] in the fall.”

The UW System is working with all its campuses to address ongoing concerns, but ultimately it leaves the decisions up to each campus’s leadership.

“These conversations will continue as we continue to learn more, either from public health officials, from the health officials that our campuses are in, from our faculty and employees,” UW System VP of Administration Rob Cramer said. “We’ll continue to update and revise the guidelines and that’s part of the importance of having the chancellors and the campuses really making the final decisions.”

Cramer added the importance of the UW System bringing students back for in-person instruction beyond the impact within the campus.

“It’s going to be important to have our campuses really help the communities restart economically and educationally this fall. And we’re excited about it but we also want to make sure we take those appropriate measures and steps.”

Cramer said the UW System is working with the NCAA and organizations like the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to address how best to phase in athletics to campus for the safety of athletes, staff and spectators.

Many UW campuses have announced initial plans to move forward with in-person instruction in the upcoming fall semester.

CBS 58 reached out to UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison. Representatives from both said each campus is planning on releasing details of its plans as early as this week.

The UW System’s full recommendations are below:

FALL 2020

  • Maximize face-to-face instruction.
    • Identify courses that can only be taught face-to-face (for example, some lab and clinical courses) for priority access to classroom space.
    • Consider moving courses with an enrollment of approximately 50 or more fully online.
  • Develop attendance policies that encourage sick students to stay home.
  • Optimize classroom usage through evening and weekend classes.
  • Continue at-home work opportunities and alternatives for at-risk populations.
  • Identify dining and residence hall modifications.
  • Determine isolation and quarantine capabilities.
  • Create guidance on safe behavior in residence halls.
  • Inventory technology needs with an emphasis on equity.
  • Develop a plan for phased return to research activity.
  • Inventory student services needs.


PUBLIC HEALTH

  • Maintain social distancing.
  • Emphasize staying home if sick, hand and respiratory hygiene, and wearing a mask, especially indoors.
  • Consider ending in-person classes at Thanksgiving.
  • Coordinate contact tracing with state and local health officials.
  • Train faculty and staff on mental health issues related to the pandemic.
  • Develop mental health programming.


PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT (PPE)

  • Recommend or require face coverings.
  • Provide education on the use and care of PPE.


FACILITIES MODIFICATIONS

  • Create guidelines for classroom occupancy.
  • Create guidelines for residence hall operations including cleaning, front desk operations, and common spaces.
  • Create guidelines on workspaces, common spaces, ingress and egress.
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