As with any college, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus functions like a miniature society. Home to a quarter of Madison’s population, it is governed by an intricate network of administrators and generations of tradition, a city within a city.
But the spirit of any school, no matter how large, lies not in this structure, but in the daily hum of activity that brings it to life. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered colleges and universities across the country, UW-Madison also emptied out. The skeleton is there, but its lifeblood — the faculty who run its classrooms, the laboratories that power a world-class research institution, the students who fill its residence halls — is not.
When students scattered in mid-March for spring break, most knew it would last longer than a week, due to precautions taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But few realized they would not return until next fall, at the earliest. Classes moved online through the end of spring semester, and school as they knew it effectively ground to a halt. Then came the announcements that canceled commencement, closed research laboratories and created residence hall move-out schedules.
“I share the disappointment of students and employees who were anticipating Terrace chairs, sunny days on Bascom and all of the events that make spring special at UW-Madison,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a March 17 news release. “This is not the semester that any of us wanted.”
UW-Madison reported its first positive case of COVID-19, a veterinary school employee, on March 13. Since then, the university confirmed that some students acquired the coronavirus while traveling during spring break, and one 22-year-old, after a full recovery, started publicly urging other young, healthy adults to stay home.
As of Tuesday morning, the state of Wisconsin had confirmed a total of 2,440 positive cases of COVID-19 and 77 deaths.
Though the university remains hopeful that it will maintain robust enrollment numbers for fall, nearly nothing is certain, UW System President Ray Cross said last Thursday. The pandemic has touched every corner of campus. As professors adjust to teaching online, they are also mourning months of lost lab results. And while student activists struggle to keep up with an evolving election year, politics feel even more urgent and the university’s international community fears increased racism and xenophobia.
The Cap Times checked in with professors, researchers, politically active students and Chinese faculty to see how they’re coping with circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t know what’s next,” Cross said. But, he added, “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start planning for what could be next.”
At the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, professor Hernando Rojas has been responsible for moving Intro to Mass Communication, a gateway course for prospective journalism majors, from 5168 Vilas Hall to the internet.
On March 23, the first morning back from spring break, the class convened through Webex, a video conferencing software that Rojas quickly realized does not run as smoothly for the journalism school’s largest lecture as it does for his small afternoon seminar. Its voice activation feature interrupted him each time someone tried to ask a question. Any student logging in or out of the virtual lecture hall, sometimes simply due to a network disruption, would trigger a distracting beep.
After class, Rojas re-recorded the full lecture to post online.
For the next session, he successfully switched over to Blackboard Connect, where students watched Rojas project PowerPoint slides onto the screen while livestreaming the lecture. “Bear in mind that we have limited connectivity in this platform,” he said at the start of class. “The only way you can communicate with me is by raising your hand.”
Students can click on a small icon of a person with a raised arm, turning it purple. That prompts Rojas to pause, grant microphone permissions and wait out a few seconds of lag before hearing the question. And when he would normally ask the class for a show of hands, he now transforms questions into yes/no statements, like “The U.S. is becoming more politically polarized,” and waits for a digital response.
In a survey, over 90% of students rated the class’ video and audio delivery as good. But streaming quality is only one, easily fixable concern. Rojas’ biggest challenge remains interactivity — 68% of students rated the platform’s interactivity as “good” and 29% as “spotty.”
“When you’re delivering your class with a face-to-face audience, you can gauge from people’s expressions that you need to explain this better,” Rojas said. “But (now) you don’t really know until later, when they ask you for clarification. That makes it a little harder, because there’s not that immediate reaction from the audience … You’re talking to a screen.”
In professor Sue Robinson’s service learning course, Journalism for Social Change, online instruction brings more than a few digital glitches. It calls for an entirely new syllabus — one that she sent out with paragraphs of updates highlighted in yellow — including four new final project options and revised deadlines.
On March 11, when UW-Madison first announced plans to move classes online through at least April 10, journalism school director Hemant Shah said he felt “as ready as we can be, given that this came up very, very suddenly.” Faculty immediately held training sessions about Webex and Blackboard and created surveys to gauge students’ accessibility needs.
“I feel like the department and the college have been really great at preparing us for this, as much as we can be,” Robinson said. Rojas agreed, saying his colleagues have always leaned tech-savvy and adjusted well to the changes.
But the phrase “as ready as we can be” abounds when it comes to online learning. To take any university course online inevitably demands trial and error, the easiest of which involves finding a smooth video platform. Beyond pesky technicalities, professors are doing the heavier work of stripping down coursework to what is essential, recalibrating familiar methods and asking themselves how, in the span of two weeks, they can keep the “spirit” of a course alive, Robinson said.
The students in Journalism for Social Change had been offering weekly production training for youth enrolled in programs offered by Madison-area nonprofits. With in-person visits now an impossibility, however, Robinson’s students are making the same transition she is. For middle and high schoolers at Simpson Street Free Press, they are editing articles on Google Drive. For Hmong, Cambodian and black girls at Freedom Inc., they are creating online materials about video editing and social media professionalism.
And their final project guidelines, which prioritize building trust with and reporting on marginalized communities, have become more flexible. Robinson is no longer requiring logged visits, and students can opt to do a case study on an online community, create resources about the coronavirus or pitch their own project entirely, as long as it maintains “the spirit of the class — that is, communication production in the name of community.”
“I wanted them to log what happened and what they could do differently. Try some collaborative work, try some partnering, try some solutions journalism, try something different,” Robinson said about the original assignment. “But now it has to be about the product. It can’t just be about the process of what they’re doing.”
Ultimately, the only way to build communities is to go into them, she said. When they can no longer physically do that, she worries that the class becomes something else entirely.
Just as Robinson’s students adapt to becoming virtual learners and teachers at once, she is also navigating dual roles. As a mother also developing curricula for a 9-year-old at home, she found herself sending an anxious email to her son’s teacher, who soon called to offer comfort after sensing the panic in her message.
“That phone call was better than any kind of antidepressant,” Robinson said. Then, she decided to pay it forward, by contacting each of her students individually: “It’s so important for us to reach out to everybody, not just the people that we know are already struggling. Everybody’s struggling.”
Biomedical engineering professor Kristyn Masters, another working parent, also reported satisfaction with how the engineering school has handled work during the pandemic, providing consistent, critical and detailed information.
But her biggest challenge has been as a single mother balancing full-time work with full-time child care, especially as both she and her daughter have a chronic respiratory disease.
“When you are a working parent, you frequently are building up a village for yourself,” Masters said. “Neighbors that can stop by, or even your child care that can give you a few minutes of your normal workday to yourself. And something like this, you lose all of it very, very suddenly.”
And while child care became increasingly challenging for Masters, she also faced the loss of another small village: her lab in the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, located at the UW Hospital complex.
The lab, which includes senior research personnel, lab technicians and graduate and undergraduate students, shut down March 15 out of concern for student safety. The School of Engineering acted quickly, but labs all over campus would soon follow suit as the university announced formal regulations that require all on-site research to be approved as “essential” — namely, “work that addresses COVID-19 or research that would, if stopped, endanger the lives of participants and critical research organisms or the continuity of long-running and time-sensitive data collection.”
“As important as all of our research is, the safety and well-being of our students and research personnel is obviously much more important,” Masters said. “So, that does help to soften the blow of having to temporarily shut down something that is very meaningful for you.”
Many “dry,” or computer-based, research groups have submitted requests for accommodation. Susan Sorensen, a fifth-year physics graduate student, can control much of her research from home, but has permission to enter the lab periodically to change electrical connections in her experiment. Plant science researchers may be visiting greenhouses to water or pollinate plants.
But wet labs like Masters’ have shut down indefinitely. The lab models diseases and drug efficacy on human cell samples, from tumors to heart and skin cells, most of which were destroyed to prepare for a research hiatus. Whenever the lab opens back up, it will have lost over a month’s work growing those cells, along with the time it takes to restart equipment, thaw cells from storage and acquire new ones. Even then, cells will be at risk of being affected by COVID-19.
While physical labs are not operating, UW-Madison’s research enterprise has fortunately remained intact, allowing Masters to submit grant proposals and prepare for later research. In the meantime, some of her students are catching up on other graduation requirements, and she said some are even a bit grateful for the extra freedom.
Sorensen is spending her time writing papers and updating her programming code. Joelle Corrigan, a fourth-year physics graduate student, has completed much of the work on her experiment and is focused on writing in the meantime. In this way, the sudden shutdown has offered almost a grace period of opportunity — for students to catch up on thesis proposals and for researchers to “rethink the things you’ve been doing for so long,” Masters said.
“Do we want to hold onto this paper until the lab is up and running and we get these experiments done — we’re talking about many, many months’ delay,” she said. “Or is it just good enough as it is?”
Still, Sorensen, who previously would tune up her system in person everyday, said she will eventually run out of other tasks to complete. Similarly, Corrigan has a rough mental timeline for the next couple months, but if in-person restrictions last far into summer, she has no idea what comes next, calling it “a problem for another day.”
“For people who are currently running experiments, it’s building up from the bottom. What’s the bare minimum you’ll need to write any paper and get that result on that one day?” Corrigan said. “Instead of going for the Hail Mary and not having anything else to show for it, I think that’s been the big strategy for them.”
While students are finding academic support in extended deadlines and eased grading requirements, life outside the classroom may not be so accommodating. When in-person classes were first suspended March 11, political science professor Barry Burden immediately worried about students leaving campus without first securing a valid form of voter ID, making them “effectively disenfranchised unless they act quickly.”
Junior Evan Karabas had a similar thought: “Wow, if we’re all going home, we need to tell people to get their absentee ballots, vote early, let them know they can register at their polling place.”
“The worst case scenario is they just don’t vote, and we can’t allow that to happen,” said Karabas, communications director for the GOP Badgers, UW-Madison’s College Republicans chapter.
The GOP Badgers, who didn’t have time to hold a final meeting, tried to make the most of the situation, continuing to make calls on behalf of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and connecting with other state chapters. Last week, College Democrats held a Netflix party in lieu of a regular meeting to collectively stream the “Knock Down the House” documentary. Both groups have shifted their energies toward digital campaigning and absentee voting education.
For many students, voting is often an afterthought, Karabas said. During typical election years, political science professor Kathy Cramer walks students, step by step, through the voting process as intricately as she can, bringing a picture of a ballot and marking pen to class.
“It’s always been so interesting to me how little they actually know about voting,” Cramer said. “It’s all so new to them … Every little thing you can do to decrease uncertainty just increases the chances that someone’s going to go to the polls.”
Adding to that uncertainty was a whirlwind of events on Monday, which saw the state Supreme Court deny an attempt by Gov. Tony Evers to extend the election to June and the U.S. Supreme Court block a move to extend the absentee ballot deadline by a week.
Students who were not able to secure voter ID cards (the university’s standard student ID cards don’t qualify), register, request absentee ballots and return or postmark them before Tuesday were out of luck.
Like most colleges, UW-Madison saw significant increases in voter turnout between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections — from 35.6% to 52.9%. In 2018, UW-Madison participated in the Big 10 Voting Challenge and came in second place, achieving a turnout rate of over 50%. This year, Chancellor Blank allocated another $10,000 to continue the efforts, and many sources agree that increased outreach has reduced confusion about Wisconsin’s voter requirements.
Politically active students began spring semester ready to build on this energy. Karabas was equal parts excited and worried that the Democratic presidential primary would swing the state Supreme Court race in liberal Judge Jill Karofsky’s favor. Katie Malloy, the student council’s legislative affairs committee chair, said in January that momentum was “still very strong.”
“We’re making great strides for really great voter registration and turnout in 2020,” Malloy said. Her biggest priority, ironically enough, was helping students register — “so they don’t have to jump through hoops in order to vote.”
In the weeks after students left campus, the university scrambled to adjust. The WisCard office began providing remote voter ID services through email, the dean of students and student council sent out a voting checklist email and Cramer created informational slides for deans and department chairs to distribute to students. As the election approached, the university paid for ads on Facebook and Instagram encouraging students to vote.
As of Monday morning, the Madison city clerk’s office had issued about 87,000 and received 46,000 absentee ballots, a new record. Turnout data from student wards was not available in time for publication.
Through all the changes, Cramer remained worried, pointing out that “the more you mix things up and change the story, the more confused voters can be.”
“I don’t think any of us expected this election to be as complicated as it is,” she said. “I actually think a lot of places are looking to how we (Wisconsin) handle this one.”
These disruptions of COVID-19, creeping into all pockets of campus life, have been as far-reaching as they have been abrupt. But for some in the community, the response to the pandemic has felt personal since the beginning.
Catherine, a Chinese professor who wished to stay anonymous, first met news of the coronavirus with worry for her uncle, who lives near Wuhan, China. Faculty at UW-Madison began sharing resources to support families back in China, texting each other through a WeChat group typically reserved for small talk or to plan social events.
Sympathy soon evolved into anger toward the Chinese government, which had worked to tamp down concerns about the disease. An email circulated within Catherine’s department after the death of Dr. Wenliang Li, a Wuhan physician who sounded the alarm about the coronavirus in December. He was reprimanded by police for spreading "rumors" about the disease before dying of COVID-19 in February.
Then, as the U.S. became the new epicenter of the pandemic and the university sent faculty home, President Donald Trump employed rhetoric on Twitter that was echoed in racist graffiti found on the UW-Madison campus last month.
“The Chinese faculty committee was alarmed that something was going to happen the first time Trump used the term ‘Chinese virus,’” Catherine said. “We were basically prepared that something was about to happen and, finally, it did.”
Within days, UW-Madison received 25 bias incident reports about two anti-Chinese messages written in chalk, one outside the Walgreens at State and Lake streets and another near the Humanities Building. Both Catherine, who cried for hours, and agricultural and applied economics professor Guanming Shi found out about the incident through other faculty.
Blank quickly condemned the incident with a statement that “racist behaviors or stereotyping of any kind are not tolerated at UW–Madison — no matter if we are online, passing others in public, or quarantined at home.” That week, administrators addressed racism and bias in two virtual forums that each attracted about 500 people.
“The show of support among our campus community over these last two days has been truly inspiring," one Asian faculty member said. "Folks genuinely want to play their part and support one another during these challenging times. On a campus that takes South Asians, Asians, Asian-Americans as a given presence, and therefore often invisible, it was an incredible event to bring people in community."
In her own department, Catherine quickly received supportive emails from her peers. “My heart sank for a minute,” said one, who offered to be a listening ear. Another called the image shocking and disgusting: “Please let me know if there is anything more that I can do to address this more fully,” they said.
Catherine doesn’t fault the administration and said Madison has generally welcomed the Chinese community, though she reported the occasional negative encounters that almost any Asian person in America is used to. She mentioned, for one, students being stopped on the street and asked their opinion about the Chinese government.
“They want to do things right, they want to shape a friendly environment. We can sense sincerity,” Catherine said. “But if you ask me how proactive we had been to support not only Asian students, but also general minority groups? Are we proactive? I’m not quite sure about that. We waited until this thing happened to take action.”
Though Shi hasn’t experienced any personal attacks, she said the fear in the Asian community is palpable, as people lose rationality and begin pointing blame. To be cautious, her husband, Dazhi Zhang, has altered the closing time of his grocery store, J&P Fresh Market, from 9 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., when it’s still light out, over fear of hate crimes.
In response to the pandemic, Chinese people have mobilized across Madison, playing different roles in different communities. As a professor and chair of graduate study, Shi said her department has “really been taking care of our students,” reaching out to offer support even after many of them have already headed home. J&P Fresh Market recently transitioned to a drive-through and pick-up model without laying off any employees.
“(The goal) is to provide jobs to those who need it. As long as they want to work, they want to pay them,” Shi said. “And secondly, to serve the community. … We wanted to be cautious and careful, but we wanted to live a normal life.”
The grocery store also donated over 1,000 medical masks and 20,000 exam gloves to UW Health. And, in late March, one group of Chinese Americans launched an online fundraiser raising over $15,000 to donate respiratory masks to local hospitals, clinics and first responders. Within ten days, a shipment of 10,000 masks had been shipped from Nanjing, China, to Madison.
Jiefeng Xi, an engineer who led the effort, said some local Chinese Americans have created Twitter accounts for the first time to spread the word or started self-support groups in response to incidents of harassment. Though he first felt helpless and confused, he said the call for funds was well-received, humbly adding that 10,000 masks may not be enough for everyone — but that “we are all in this together and that is the only way we can win over this disease.”
“We have known early that it was time to get prepared,” Xi said. “We were among the first to stock nonperishable food, get traditional herbal medicine, and hold kids home when school was still on. Local Chinese grocery stores were the first to turn into taking online orders only in order to practice social distancing. We wish we were overreacting, but unfortunately, we were not.”
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