In mid-March, as COVID-19 began creeping its way across the country, institutions of higher education, one by one, closed their classroom doors. In a wave of shared understanding, schools — no matter their enrollments, demographics, endowments, or any of the other factors that set colleges apart — closed their campuses and sent students home to learn remotely.
The four months since have been a slow waiting game and chaotic flurry of planning at once. Like most colleges, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held off on announcements relating to fall instruction through May, as administrators addressed more immediate concerns about coursework and fielded questions from students and families, both current and incoming. They moved 8,000 courses online within 12 days, issued a flexible COVID-19 grading policy and implemented unpaid furloughs for faculty and staff.
But if spring saw the nation’s universities come together in a total shutdown of campuses and cautious optimism for the fall, little suggests that decisions about reopening will be equally unanimous, or hopeful. On June 17, UW-Madison announced its “Smart Restart” reopening plan to begin the semester as planned, making it one of 29% of American colleges and universities preparing for a “hybrid model,” according to information from over 1,100 schools compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“It’s now time to plan for reopening this fall,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a June 17 news release. “Although the coming academic year will be different, we will do everything we can to make sure that our students are engaged and learning effectively, while keeping the risk of infection as low as possible.”
Classes will begin Sept. 2 with a combination of in-person and online coursework. After the Thanksgiving holiday, however, classes will be solely online for about one week of instruction before final exams.
While 56% of colleges plan for in-person instruction and only 9% for online only, COVID-19 cases have increased steadily throughout the summer, especially among young people. Wisconsin reported a record daily number of 926 cases on July 11, and 20- to 29-year-olds now make up a quarter, or the largest age category, of all confirmed cases in the state.
In Dane County, they made up 54% of people who tested positive in the last two weeks.
UW-Madison remains committed to preserving elements of in-person teaching, with physical distancing requirements and widespread testing. However, as families and faculty continue to ask more specific questions about what school will look like, the university has about five weeks to hash out the details.
“This is a big lift,” Blank said at a University Committee meeting Monday. “We’re going to be running the university in virtually every area differently than it’s ever been run before.”
University spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said in an email that UW-Madison will continue tracking the pandemic, including the rate of infection and healthcare system capacity, to adjust policies. She added that regardless how open campus is this fall, many students are already located in Madison and more will return when their leases begin in August.
As they sent students home in March, UW-Madison administrators formed an “instructional continuity” team to address learning during the pandemic. The phrase would become a cornerstone of reopening policy. By the end of March, there were already four instructional continuity teams planning for the fall.
Now, there are 14 work and implementation teams, focusing on everything from academic issues like research and instruction to testing, public health, athletics and quarantine/isolation.
Steve Cramer, vice provost for teaching and learning, is leading the instruction team and addressed Smart Restart at a University Committee meeting June 22, calling the next few weeks “crunch time.” Some students would need to reschedule courses to make campus as least dense as possible, he said, and many courses with over 50 students will likely be remote — “because unless we go into Camp Randall and spread out, there’s no effective way to teach in person.”
According to Smart Restart, classes with fewer than 50 students will be held in larger classrooms with physical distancing precautions, while lecture classes with hundreds of students will be virtual, “with every attempt made to hold small discussion/problem-set sessions in person for those students able to attend.”
On Monday, provost Karl Scholz confirmed that the university has identified appropriate rooms and times for all in-person classes to accommodate distancing requirements.
McGlone said the university is still in the process of determining how many courses will be offered this fall and that more information will be available this month. As no students are required to attend in-person courses, some classes may end up with a mix of on-campus and remote students.
“We are working to provide robust virtual course choices for those students who will not be on campus and ensure they are making progress toward their degree,” McGlone said. “There may be cases where students will need to delay completing a specific course, such as a lab or clinical experience, that must be completed in person.”
Tuition and fees are the same regardless of how students take their courses.
Laura Downer, chair of Associated Students of Madison, the university’s student government, said she has noticed her peers becoming less hopeful about being on campus in the fall, especially given the rise in positive cases across the country. Earlier this month, Harvard University announced that all learning will be online through the 2020-2021 school year, while other institutions laid out plans to allow only certain classes of students to be on campus at a time.
“As things have developed … I think people are getting more pessimistic about the fall. I am, at least,” said Downer, who is serving on an academic experience committee. “It’s looking more and more like a larger portion is going to be online … Let’s figure out how to build an infrastructure so that students learn and feel motivated to learn, more so than they did in the spring.”
And it’s not just students who are worried. In late June, the Madison chapter of the Association of American University Professors conducted a survey of about 200 instructors, 75% of which responded that they preferred online instruction, as opposed to face-to-face instruction, or a mixture of both.
Almost 90% said they were concerned or very concerned about the risk of teaching in person, while 76% said they were not or not at all confident that the Smart Restart plan would “lead to a safe and effective reopening of campus.”
AAUP shared these results with recommendations to Blank and Cramer on July 1, asking the university to explicitly state that no instructor will be compelled to teach in person. It also advised UW-Madison not to use numerical targets for in-person teaching and to more strongly remind employees how to request accommodations under disability policy.
“While many departments are doing their best to accommodate instructors’ requests about delivery of instruction, we remain concerned that some instructors, particularly those without tenure, may not be consulted about their preferences or may be pressured into teaching in person when they do not feel safe doing so,” the statement said.
Smart Restart’s model allows deans and departments to decide how courses will be taught, but AAUP president Timothy Yu said it was unclear whether individual instructors across the university would be able to make this choice. About 75% of respondents said they had been asked about their preferences, and most had not yet heard back about how they will be teaching in the fall.
Yu added that the new surge of cases is “likely to heighten faculty concerns.”
McGlone responded that the university will provide accommodations for students and employees who need them.
“The overwhelming feedback from students and parents is that they want (on-campus) experiences, too, and that it would be their preference to avoid a purely remote educational environment,” McGlone said. “Similarly, with respect to on-site research, faculty have been eager to return to their labs and work.”
UW-Madison is “investing heavily” in technology and training to improve online learning, according to Smart Restart. In June, it announced a new range of professional development opportunities available online and signed a contract with Honorlock, a proctoring software for remote test-taking.
Kirsten Wolf, a professor in German, Nordic and Slavic Studies, said she is nervous about teaching in the fall and hopes to hear some “firm guidelines” about the fall. Also chair of the University Committee, Wolf voiced support at the meeting Monday for clearer communication, such as through a Q&A document, and said instructors are "losing sleep" over questions, such as when a class might have to move online or how to regulate mask wearing in the classroom.
Still, she agreed that administration is taking many precautions to protect people’s safety.
“I’m quite frankly surprised that everything went so smoothly in the spring, when we had just about two weeks to adjust,” said Wolf, who had never taught an online course before. “I totally expect that administration will continue to support faculty and instructional staff. Our students need quality teaching.”
UW-Madison has placed testing, tracking and distancing at the center of its health and safety guidelines. Smart Restart relies on social distancing, masks and regular testing, in line with guidance from public health officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But even Fauci admitted no single approach will work.
“It’s going to depend on the location … what the demography of the students is, where they’re coming from,” he told The Chronicle in June.
The university estimates that about 7,700 students will live in residence halls this year, compared to 8,000 last year. UW-Madison has met its enrollment goals for the fall, with 7,360 anticipated incoming students and enough in-state students to meet goals outlined by the UW System.
Still, as Blank has repeatedly emphasized, it is hard to estimate the size of this year’s incoming class until it is time for them to be on campus. The university will be operating all of its residence halls, with no more than two people per room. Lounges and common areas will be closed or rearranged.
All members of the campus community will be able to receive free testing. Director of University Health Services Jake Baggott said the visits will be “unlimited” for people who may be developing symptoms and that, “in theory, I guess you could receive one daily.”
UW-Madison also plans regular targeted testing for certain groups, such as all staff and students in residence halls, and weekly surveillance testing of up to 2,000 volunteers. Both mass testing on Day 1 and intermittent surveys throughout the semester can help schools better understand “what you’re dealing with,” Fauci said.
Costs for protective measures including testing and hiring contact tracers are expected to cost $35 million to $40 million for the 2020-2021 academic year, McGlone said.
The university will also require everyone on campus to wear face coverings — with accommodations for those unable to do so — and provide increased access to hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies in classrooms.
While it may be difficult to punish violators, the Board of Regents voted July 9 to require masks across System campuses. Outgoing President Ray Cross and multiple chancellors had voiced support for stricter wording in a mask requirement at a June meeting.
“Speaking foremost as a student, I know my peers, and I know a lot of them won’t wear masks without it being a requirement,” said Regent Olivia Woodmansee, a UW-La Crosse student. “If they don’t do it, they don’t do it. But at least come down strong on the fact that they have to wear masks.”
At many schools, the policy will also rely on peer-to-peer encouragement and marketing language that emphasizes social responsibility. UW-Madison is working with Public Health Madison and Dane County and local officials in developing a marketing campaign about health precautions, McGlone said. It includes information about how to reduce risk and specific guidance to student organizations.
Blank and other chancellors at other UW campuses have also emphasized the role of faculty in enforcing face coverings in their own classrooms. At the news conference June 17, Blank said, “I expect every classroom this fall, at the top of the syllabus, to say, ‘If you want to be in this class in person, we expect you to be masked.’”
Selma Fairach, a rising senior serving on the high-priority course development committee, said she is balancing the excitement of being back on campus with concern about jeopardizing her own and others’ health.
“It might be easier with people you actually know, because you can see on Snapchat or Instagram where they’ve been, who they hang out with, whether they wear face coverings,” Fairach said. “But if you’re in a classroom with complete strangers and you don’t really know who they are ... then it’s a bit harder to know what to do.”
But health and safety concerns go far beyond controlled behavior on campus and in classrooms. If colleges are reopening to offer a semblance of normal student life, they must also understand that this is impossible without other activities — from shared bathrooms in residence halls to nights out on State Street — that make up the quintessential college experience.
What’s more, even with perfect protocol on paper, these unregulated activities are precisely what make reopening most risky. Large gatherings indoors have become hotspots for viral spread after bars and restaurants began reopening in June.
Noel Radomski, managing director for the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said in an email that he is “deeply concerned” about having students on campus.
“Unfortunately, I believe campuses are making decisions based on best- or good-case scenarios,” Radomski said. “What are the difference scenarios that the campus has agreed that will trigger closing the campus? What if the Dane County Health Services puts out new guidelines that the campus can’t follow?”
Though UW-Madison does not own fraternity and sorority houses, it is working closely with local chapters and national organizations to encourage strong health and safety guidelines. As for nearby bars and restaurants, establishments remain under Dane County’s “Forward Dane” reopening plan, which reimplemented indoor restrictions July 1 after initially relaxing them under phase two.
“Many students experience much of their lives off-campus and we support the latest PHMDC orders to ensure local establishments are operating safely,” McGlone said.
Nonetheless, the burden will lie largely on students themselves — who Downer said have become less lax about the virus — to discourage others from reckless activities that might increase risk.
“The conversation has switched from, ‘I kind of miss going to bars,’ or ‘I kind of miss going out,’ to ‘Oh, my gosh, I think I probably have it,’” Downer said. “Overall there’s more anxiety, and I think people are starting to be more careful.”
UW-Madison is in line with the UW System on reopening for the fall, but leadership has allowed significant room for chancellors and campuses to make individual decisions. Through Plan Ahead, a task force launched April 30, the System has offered general pointers to schools.
“The goal is to give guidance to the institutions, chancellors and their teams, to make decisions on their actual detailed activities,” said Rob Cramer, vice president for administration. “There’s no way that you can give a prescriptive set of advice.”
The System has estimated net financial losses due to COVID-19 to be $102 million through the summer. On June 26, interim President Tommy Thompson requested $110 million from Gov. Tony Evers in funding for testing, cleaning supplies and protective equipment and $25 million for information technology and security. The System is also in the process of receiving $94 million in federal stimulus money, half of which goes directly to student relief aid.
Evers also previously approved $19 million for COVID-19-related costs. His lapse plan required schools to put $40 million back toward the state.
UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said in a July 10 email that the System is “proceeding with plans to welcome students back to campus this fall.” It has set up an Emergency Operations Center and Plan Ahead team to continue monitoring the pandemic, he added.
The pandemic comes at a time of internal and financial instability for the System, as Wisconsin schools face continued budget cuts and anticipate Cross’ retirement in October. While UW-Madison will be fortunate to avoid the fallout, Radomski, also a former UW-Madison planning analyst, said in an interview in April that smaller schools across Wisconsin and the nation will bear the brunt.
“Madison will survive, but it’s those Stevens Points, LaCrosses, Milwaukees … I expect that many of them will be closed,” Radomski said. “We’re going to go through such significant, sad moments.”
UW-Madison expects about $120 million in losses related to the pandemic, McGlone said.
Despite meeting its enrollment goals, UW-Madison anticipates a lower number of international students due to COVID-19, Cramer said at a University Committee meeting in June. High domestic enrollment can offset losses from international students, who pay more in tuition, but the pandemic poses longer-term challenges for all American colleges and universities, which are now harder pressed to attract and retain students from abroad.
And, on July 7, new federal guidance from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threw already-anxious students and institutions into further disarray. Under the policy, international students on F-1 visas who are only taking online courses would have been required to transfer to a school with in-person coursework or leave the country.
After legal challenges from over 18 states, including Wisconsin, the federal government backtracked and rescinded the policy Tuesday. Blank joined university leaders in denouncing the plan and commended Attorney General Josh Kaul’s decision to join the litigation.
“The swift and strong response – from students, faculty and staff; from university, business and community leaders; and from state attorneys general – demonstrate what an important place international students have on our campuses and in our country,” Blank said in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to monitor this situation and advocate for wise policies.”
It remains unclear how many of the 5,800 UW-Madison students on F-1 visas would have been sent home. Though Fairach was likely to be unaffected, as a materials science and engineering student with in-person lab and discussion components, she said it would have made the fall semester “even trickier” from a public health standpoint.
She plans to return to campus in early August as a residence hall housefellow after four months in Indonesia, where she adapted relatively well to a 12-hour time difference and spotty internet connection. Much of Fairach and her committee’s work has involved advising professors to make this transition as smooth as possible in the fall.
“(Professors’ needs) vary a lot, but a lot of it is having two-way communication with students, making sure the experiences students are having is the same whether in person or remote,” Fairach said, citing recommendations such as captions for videos and international time zones.
Radomski added that a robust online learning infrastructure will also be essential in enrolling more adult learners. Regardless of how it approaches the fall, UW-Madison will have to continue adjusting to new methods of teaching and learning, he added.
“We’re going to go through ups and downs with the virus, but I think from now on, there will always be a combination of online — synchronous and asynchronous — and face-to-face,” Radomski said in April. “And those universities that can do that will do quite well.”