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Timothy Yu: UW-Madison needs a safer plan for faculty and students

Timothy Yu: UW-Madison needs a safer plan for faculty and students

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Lecture hall

A group of students listens during a lecture on UW-Madison's campus in 2018.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage unchecked across the country, many schools have begun to rethink their fall reopening plans.

Michigan State University, the University of California- Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania have announced recently that they will start the fall semester holding classes online, reversing earlier plans for substantial in-person instruction. The Big Ten has canceled its fall 2020 football season. Public schools in the Madison area will also begin the fall online due to the uncontrolled spread of the virus in our community.

Yet UW-Madison is proceeding full speed ahead with a reopening plan that will bring tens of thousands of students back to campus for in-person classes. In doing so, UW-Madison is disregarding concerns raised by faculty, staff and students about the risks of reopening. It is forcing instructors back into the classroom against their will and at significant risk to their health. And it is ignoring a growing body of evidence that even aggressive testing and tracing efforts may not be sufficient to contain a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.

In June, the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors surveyed 200 fall semester instructors. We found that 78% of respondents preferred to hold their classes online in the fall and 64% were “very concerned” about the risks of teaching in person. Based on these results, we made four recommendations to UW-Madison administration, including a request that no instructor be compelled to teach in person.

Unfortunately, this request was rejected. Instead, the university has renewed its push for more in-person instruction. We have heard from department chairs and individual instructors that they are receiving pressure from the university to convert online courses to in-person ones. This flies in the face of previous assurances that departments would determine the best way to deliver their own curriculum.

The university’s claim that it can reopen safely is based on a plan to test students living in residence halls every two weeks. Yet new research suggests that it may be necessary to test students every two days in order to control the spread of COVID-19. Universities such as Harvard and Yale are indeed planning to test students multiple times a week, but they have much smaller student bodies and are inviting only a fraction of their students back to campus. Given our much larger student population, it seems unlikely that UW-Madison will be able to test students with the necessary frequency.

UW-Madison labor groups have already called for fall courses to be moved online to protect the safety of staff and students. While we recognize that some faculty are willing to teach in person, the university’s refusal to allow individual instructors to opt out of in-person teaching makes it impossible for vulnerable instructors, particularly those without tenure, to protect themselves and their families. In the absence of such protections, moving most courses online may be the safest choice.

We recognize the enormous challenges the pandemic poses to UW-Madison. Yet the costs associated with an in-person reopening — both in dollars and, we fear, in the lives of students and staff — may ultimately be far higher than those associated with holding most classes online. We urge UW-Madison to follow other educational institutions in changing course to a more cautious approach, one that brings fewer students to campus and that protects instructors from being forced to return to the classroom.

Yu, of Madison, is an associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at UW-Madison, and president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

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