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UW-Madison campus divided over return to in-person classes amid omicron surge

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UW Omicron

UW-Madison senior Melanie LaFountain walks through the doors of Memorial Union on Friday, just days before the university's fifth COVID-19-affected semester begins. Some say the omicron surge should mean a temporary pivot to online learning, but 92% of classes are scheduled to be in person starting Tuesday.

The idea of teaching more than 100 UW-Madison undergraduates face to face at this point in the pandemic, with COVID-19 cases reaching new records and hospitals overwhelmed, terrifies teaching assistant Adrian George.

“It feels like a scary, uncertain time to start teaching during the pandemic,” said George, a first-time instructor who is among hundreds asking for a few weeks of online classes until the worst of the omicron wave is over. “The university isn’t giving us that flexibility and choice. We’re all on edge.”

Political science professor Jon Pevehouse understands those concerns. One of his own children is too young to get vaccinated and he himself has a health condition placing him at higher risk. But he also has a high school senior at home and believes online classes come with risks, too.

“They’ve lost so much already,” he said about students. “The mental health costs unleashed on that generation — it’s a balance of risks, ultimately, and I’m coming down right now on the side of being back in the classroom.”

The instructors’ perspectives highlight a divide on campus between some who say the university is again falling short in its pandemic response and others who feel UW-Madison is acting cautiously appropriate ahead of the school’s spring semester, which starts Tuesday.

On the one hand, the state’s COVID-19 caseload has never been higher in the lead-up to classes. Wisconsin’s seven-day average of daily new cases on the first day of classes in fall 2020 was 695. In spring 2021 and fall 2021, the number hovered around 1,500 cases. On Friday, it was 17,586.

On the other hand, the risk of severe illness is much lower than before vaccines became available. Experts are seeing signs of the omicron-fueled wave slowing in other parts of the country. More than 95% of the campus community is vaccinated, masks are still required and testing is available, although some changes on that front have sparked concern.

UW Omicron

Students pick up at-home rapid antigen tests, a new measure in UW-Madison's COVID-19 plan for the spring semester.

UW-Madison provost John Karl Scholz told a faculty committee earlier this month that classrooms have been safe throughout the pandemic. With students returning to Madison regardless of whether classes are in person or online, he said UW leaders and public health experts they consulted with “don’t believe a period of remote instruction would appreciably decrease the predicted spread of Covid in the weeks ahead.”

UW-Milwaukee, however, made a different calculation. The university is allowing instructors to move class online for the first week of the semester, which starts Monday. About 55% of classes that were scheduled to be in person will instead be temporarily taught online, spokesperson Michelle Johnson said.

UW-Madison is holding firm and moving ahead as planned, with 92% of classes scheduled to be fully in person.

“COVID-19 will continue to be present, in ever-evolving forms, for the foreseeable future,” a UW-Madison message to employees this week said. “Because of the presence of highly effective vaccines, public health agencies in our county, state and nation are pivoting to providing individuals the tools they need to resume most daily activities. We will embrace that same approach.”

Testing changes

From Aug. 1 through the end of 2021, UW-Madison reported just under 1,950 COVID-19 cases on campus. In just the first 13 days of testing in 2022, a time when far fewer students have been in Madison, the university has already reported 1,536 on-campus cases, according to its COVID-19 data dashboard.

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But the dashboard will become a less meaningful metric to monitor with the addition of at-home rapid antigen tests to UW-Madison’s testing protocol. Results from those tests won’t be incorporated onto the dashboard, which officials say aligns with the state’s reporting practices that require reporting of positive PCR tests and antigen tests administered at testing sites.

The approach differs from the city-county health department, which encourages people to report their at-home test results to the agency so it can “better understand the level of virus spreading in our community.”

Unvaccinated students and employees will continue to be required to test weekly on campus, but there is now just one location to receive a PCR test.

Some on campus, like graduate union co-president John Walker, question the pivot to antigen tests, which offer results more quickly but are also less reliable. Critics also wonder whether a single testing site will suffice for a community of 65,000 people spread across a massive campus.

In the last few weeks of the fall semester, testing was in high demand nationally as the Omicron wave began and many sought to get tested before traveling home. On-campus appointments at the four testing sites were full, sending students off campus, where some of them struggled to secure a test.

UW-Madison, in a message last month, said it will be able to serve everyone who is required to or wishes to test at the one location. The move to a single testing site was made to use staff more efficiently and the same testing capacity of 5,000 PCR tests per week relied upon in the fall will remain, university spokesperson Meredith McGlone said.

Distribution of antigen tests is limited right now for employees and students living off campus to one per week, though UW-Madison is working with multiple suppliers to expand supply, she said.

UW Omicron

Students started picking up at-home COVID-19 test kits on the UW-Madison campus this week.

“We need everyone’s cooperation in using campus testing resources responsibly,” McGlone said, pointing to other testing options available. She also encouraged those unable to make an on-campus testing appointment to cancel so someone else may be able to grab the open slot.

Masks, boosters, ventilation

Gabriela Zumwalt is excited but a little worried about the semester ahead.

The nerves, however, have little to do with the virus and more to do with starting at UW-Madison as a transfer student from Madison Area Technical College. In the Memorial Union on Wednesday, she was headed to course registration with the hope that most of her classes would be in person.

Graduate student Mike Smale, who is a teaching assistant for an introductory biology course this semester, also wants face-to-face classes, noting an online course he took as a UW-Madison undergraduate before COVID-19 hit didn’t go over well. But he’s also pretty blunt about the state of the pandemic right now: “Covid cases are crazy right now.”

Smale, of West Bend, has a few ideas: Mandate the vaccine and booster shot. Ditch the cloth masks and require N95s. Adopt an “open window” policy to improve ventilation, with teachers telling students to bring sweaters to class.

“I would like to see them do everything possible to keep classes in person,” he said.

UW-Madison is distributing N95, KN95 and surgical masks to students and employees who want them. But no mandate is in the works because “fit and other factors that are important in mask selection vary from person to person,” McGlone said.

That’s a letdown for teaching assistant Miranda Alksnis who believes cloth masks simply won’t cut it against a fast-spreading variant. And even though omicron causes less severe illness, she said the science is still emerging on whether it can result in long COVID, where individuals can suffer from debilitating exhaustion and pain for months.

UW Omicron

UW-Madison representatives guide prospective students and their parents on a campus tour Friday.

Mental health concerns

Burnout. Stress. A lack of connection.

Pevehouse saw it all. In his 20 years at UW-Madison, he never had more students approach him about mental health issues than last fall.

The number of students seeking counseling at University Health Services last fall was up 28% compared with the previous two fall semesters, mental health director Sarah Nolan said in mid-November. Whether that’s a direct effect of COVID-19 or part of a broader national trend that’s been on the rise even before the pandemic, Nolan doesn’t know at this point.

But the overarching message is clear: Students are struggling, even with most classes back in person.

For business professor Jon Eckhardt, face-to-face instruction is “worth the risk.”

One of his students last fall, for example, said hello to him while outside and unmasked. The professor didn’t recognize his student, an interaction that prompted Eckhardt to throw an outdoor pizza party for his class to meet for the first time without masks. It was a completely different experience from the weeks they spent together in the classroom.

“Everyone will be doing their best but those relationships won’t form in the way they normally do,” he said of the semester ahead.

That’s why Eckhardt plans to continue checking in with his fall class. Meet outside as much as possible. Maybe even throw them another pizza party.

“The classroom experience, we’ve all learned, is a special experience,” he said.


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