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Dane County Board urges UW-Madison to move classes online, close dorms
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Dane County Board urges UW-Madison to move classes online, close dorms

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A hand sanitizing station along Linden Drive is available for students on UW-Madison's campus.

The Dane County Board urged UW-Madison to move all classes online and empty out dorms, the latest call from local officials for the university to take more drastic action to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The board voted 24-9 in a roll call vote with 4 abstaining on the resolution at its Thursday meeting.

A number of county supervisors expressed concern with the rapid, recent spread of COVID-19 in Dane County, following the return of students to campuses in September. Sup. Yogesh Chawla said COVID-19 cases are out of control and fueled by the actions of the UW System.

UW-Madison and Dane County, led by County Executive Joe Parisi, have been at odds in recent weeks following a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the campus that left the county’s public health infrastructure overwhelmed.

Parisi asked UW-Madison to move all classes online and send students in dorms home, a request that went unheeded. He said he is hoping his recommendation will be seriously considered for the spring semester plans administrators are currently crafting.

To get COVID-19 cases under control, university officials quarantined two of the largest dorms and paused in-person instruction for two weeks, a lockdown that lifted about a week ago. UW-Madison reported on Thursday a seven-day average positivity rate of 1.6% among students tested on campus. The seven-day average of UW cases from campus testing sites and the city-county health department is 32 cases.

Brenda Gonzalez, director of community relations at UW-Madison who spoke during the County Board meeting in opposition of the resolution, said testing and protocol put in place should keep the number of positive cases on campus low. She said Public Health Madison and Dane County is monitoring possible transmission of cases from campus to the surrounding community and hasn’t found evidence to support a large number of campus-to-community case transmissions.

“We do not believe that further limiting in-person instruction is prudent or necessary,” Gonzalez said.

Dane County Sup. Michele Ritt, a mother of a UW System student, voted against the resolution but questioned the effectiveness of policies meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“I see huge issues with enforcement of the policies,” she said, and asked what steps the university plans to take to monitor and implement mitigation tactics across a campus of tens of thousands of students.

Laura Downer, a UW-Madison graduate student, said the resolution does not serve the best interest of the students.

“Sending all students from residence halls home is unsafe and unrealistic,” she said. “If we close residence halls and move classes online, this will encourage students to engage in more reckless behaviors.”

Matthew Mitnick, chair of Associated Students of Madison who spoke in support of the resolution, said student concerns are not being met in the campus’ plan to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

“Public health is really not the priority right now, and as a student I’m extremely concerned about going to in-person classes,” he said. “Is it going to take a death for us to realized we’re in the midst of a global pandemic?”

In response to the vote, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank reiterated that many students will stay in Madison regardless of whether classes are delivered entirely online because they are members of the community who live, work and vote in the city. Further, she said, no faculty or staff have become infected in classrooms or lab settings and the latest testing data on campus shows a lower infection rate than in Dane County.

“Given the low case numbers at UW, our extensive testing and messaging regime, and our students’ commitment to being part of the Madison community, we disagree with calls for the university to send student(s) home,” Blank said in a statement. “The university, the city and the county need to work together to make sure that all people — students and non-students alike – follow county health protocols and remain healthy.”

The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce opposed the resolution, saying it strikes the wrong balance and would cause “unnecessary economic hardship” on businesses.

“Ending in-person classes and sending students ‘home’ is not a productive public health strategy and sends a terrible message to the students that are members of our community,” the Chamber said in a statement.

State Journal reporter Elizabeth Beyer contributed to this report.

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