For the first time ever, universities in Wisconsin and around the world are putting together safety plans to halt the spread of coronavirus, something which has taken more than 1,000 lives in Wisconsin and 164,000 across the country while infecting more than 5.1 million people in America.
No plan for opening a university can be fool-proof, which leads to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank being both confident in her campus plan and concerned about the things she – and any university’s chief executive – cannot control no matter how comprehensive a plan’s framework is.
“I admit I am both optimisitc and worried. I think we’ve done everything we need to do. We’ve got a lot of moving parts,” Blank told WTMJ’s John Mercure during Tuesday’s WTMJ Cares Special Roundtable.
“I think we’ve got a great team, and we’re landing the ship in the right place for moving forward with this fall, but I worry. There are a lot of things that are not in our control. This pandemic is the most obvious of them. We all have to really pay attention to what we’re doing and make sure we don’t start taking risks and causing problems that spread beyond our community.”
The extensive nuts and bolts of the plan have lots of structure to help mitigate spread, first in the classroom with a hybrid setup.
“We have a good number of courses online, largely our large courses where you can’t go in and physically distance students,” she said.
“We hope that a number of small courses will be in person. We have a good number of faculty who are looking forward to some of that teaching.”
Blank said students will experience a large number of health protocols being put in place as well.
“We have a rather strict testing regime. We’re requiring everyone wear masks and physically distance in the classroom and whenever they are inside any buildings,” she said. “We’re going to work hard to make this a successful fall semester.”
Even the calendar of the fall semester has changed to keep students and others in the community safe.
“It’s going to be a different fall semester. We’re going to be stopping a little early as of Thanksgiving, rather than everyone go home and come back to campus,” she explained. “We’re going to complete the last two weeks of the semester at home through distance learning, so we don’t spread the infection at that point in time.”
While residence halls will be open, Blank says they will be “de-densified.”
“We are very strict about some of the things we’re going to be doing in the dorms with health protocols. Staying in the dorms means you agree you’re going to be tested at least every two weeks. We’re asking everyone who’s coming into the dorms to test before they arrive on campus and not come until they have a negative test.”
Blank also explained how dorm life will be very different, with much more control about who can come in and out of residence halls and where students can and can’t go.
“There will be no guests in the dorms. Nobody can go into the cafeterias except students in the dorms,” she said.
“We are trying to de-densify as much as possible. We know students will be in pods in their dorm room and those immediately around them. They are going to run across the hall to whoever is across the hall, but we have some protocols about not running up and down multiple stairways and hopefully students will stay in smaller groups and understand this is important to protect the whole community.”
Additionally, students will have new experiences in dining halls which will remove buffet-style eating.
“We are redoing all our cafeteria protocols. There are no buffet lines in the cafeteria. Things are very much grab-and-go with individual serving size. We have staggered cafeteria hours and have far fewer seats there. We think many people will grab this and take it back and eat it someplace else, particularly when the weather is good.”
Meanwhile, UW’s Memorial Union will also have a different experience, particularly with a favorite spot on campus, the Union Terrace.
“The Union is one of those things that we will be operating, but I’m afraid it won’t look like past years,” Blank said.
“In fact, we re-opened service on the Terrace, which is the iconic location on Madison’s campus, in early July. But tables are more distant. You actually have to make a reservation. When you arrive, you have to sit at your table and stay there. It’s a restaurant. It’s an eating place, rather than the gathering place that it was in past summers. We certainly hope to continue this until the weather gets so bad that we can’t be outside anymore. If you do want to come eat at the Terrace, look online at the Union, make a reservation and show up. It’s the same wonderful place to sit and have some popcorn, an ice cream or a beer that it always was.”
Blank said that student organizations will not have the capabilities for holding events as they had in the past due to Dane County mandates on the sizes of events.
“Student organizations will be restricted. We are following the Dane County guidelines here, which limit the number of people that can gather both inside, and a slightly larger limit on those who can gather outside,” said Blank.
“That does mean there will be very few large events on campus this year. There are a lot of student organizations, for instance, that like to run big events, bring in speakers, hold dances, whatever. That is simply not going to be happening. We are hoping and will be working with a lot of our student organizations to think about alternative ways in which they can reach out and have smaller gatherings with more limited numbers of their members, and maybe tailor things to a different set of interests. It’s important that students be involved in those organizations, but there won’t be the sort of big gatherings that you would often see as school begins in the fall.”
Mental health has become a much more critical component of people’s needs, due to the higher stresses that fear of the virus brings. UW is responding with innovative steps to help those students.
We have transferred a lot of services to tele-health meetings and recommendations rather than in-person meetings, and have also made it legally possible to provide mental health services to people in other states who might not be able to come to campus,” said Blank.
“We’re very much aware of this and are doing a lot of outreach, particularly among students at campus, to let them know what their options are and how to reach out for help if they need it.”
The university has also begun a large marketing campaign for students to help them understand the need to comply with the coronavirus-related rules now in place at UW.
“We have done some focus groups through our marketing department over the summer, asking ‘What are the things that are most convincing to students as to why they need to wear masks (and) why they need to follow these health protocols?’ There are two answers to that,” Blank explains.
“Students are actually not motivated by saying ‘You’ve got to protect yourself’ because, I think, too many students, rightly or wrongly, think they’re relatively invulnerable to be harmed by this disease. They are very responsive, however, to being told ‘You need to protect the community. You need to protect others, not just the campus community but the larger Madison community.’ It’s what Badgers do. We have a whole marketing campaign around that. The second marketing campaign is interesting. The price of being in college and not at home in the bedroom with your parents is that you have to wear a mask and follow health procedures. They seem to be quite responsive to that as well.”
But will those students comply?
“We’ve been very clear about expectation. Our students are also signing a pledge. I’m optimistic that the vast majority of students will follow this,” Blank said. “For the few who don’t, we do have a series of escalating sanctions that we will impose.”
These plans and communication with students could make it a much safer experience for students fighting the virus, but it comes at a very large cost that has already caused a huge burden on university budgets, and that burden is only going to grow.
“We are in deep financial difficulties, as I think virtually all the schools in the system are with the loss of revenues. We have publicly said we are facing about a $150 million deficit over this COVID year. That could get much larger as the fall evolves,” said Blank.
“Our concern is not just, of course, the revenue losses that have come about because of no conferences, no athletic events, the Union not making income, but also the state budget cuts that are coming. The governor lapsed an amount of money in last year’s budget in the late spring that took almost $50 million away from the system that was distributed across all the schools. He’s already announced he’s going to lapse another $250 (million) in this current year. How that will be distributed between higher (education) and other things is yet unknown.”
She warns there could be very large budget hits from the state which could rival the amount of money UW is losing in lost revenue.
“Those two together, by the time they accumulate, could be very large,” she said. “We, like all schools…have taken a whole variety of measures to restrict expenditures. We are going to reassess in the fall when we know more about what the state is doing, and see what else we have to do.”