By UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank

We’re on the cusp of what is sure to be one of the most unusual fall semesters in our university’s history.

If you’re a student, I want to take a moment to welcome you back. If you’re an employee, I’d like to thank you for your hard work this summer to help us reach this point. It’s taken extraordinary efforts from all employees – faculty, instructors, staff, and graduate students – to help prepare for our fall semester.

I recognize that, to some degree, we’re all anxious about the ongoing pandemic and exhausted by the change and uncertainty we’re experiencing. For our university, COVID-19 disrupted our spring semester, our research, teaching and outreach work, and our chance for graduates to celebrate together. It has led to furloughs and a hiring freeze. Despite efforts to shield our lower earning employees from the worst outcomes, this has had an economic ripple effect through families and the wider community. We know that it has deeply and disproportionately impacted our communities of color.

Amid all these effects, I have been repeatedly asked over the past weeks why we would choose to move ahead this fall with our plans for a hybrid model of instruction using both virtual and in-person modalities. I have heard the feedback from employees and acknowledge the anxiety and uncertainty some are feeling about the start of the semester on September 2. I want to take this opportunity to directly address many of the core questions I’m hearing and provide the latest information we have.

Q. Why reopen at this point?

With the support and cooperation of everyone in our community, we continue to believe that we have a plan in place that allows us to safely reopen for partial in-person instruction until the Thanksgiving break. This decision is not a financial one, but a chance to allow for some in-person learning, as well as at least some of the interactions between students (as well as with faculty and staff) that make a UW education so valuable. Having students on campus and providing in-person instruction, where feasible, provides a better set of educational opportunities for students lacking suitable technology or spaces to effectively study at home.

Our plan was crafted with the participation and input from senior leaders in Schools and Colleges, shared governance leaders and many faculty and staff who participated in different task forces. We continue to hold live events to answer questions and respond to feedback.

At this stage, roughly 45 percent of classes will have some in-person component to them. If students want a course schedule with classes designed to be entirely remote, almost all have had the opportunity to select these courses.

In understanding our decision, it is important to recognize that a substantial percentage of students have been living in Madison and/or will be here in the fall whether or not we offer any in-person instruction. Given this, we believe that both they and the community are better off when they have some structure to their days (beyond sitting at home in front of a computer), when testing is broadly available, and when they receive daily reminders of health protocols.

As noted, we have emphasized to all students that they can stay away from Madison and take remote classes if they have health issues or if this is their preference. The fact that our students are returning to Madison in large numbers indicates their desire to be on and near campus.

We’ve heard from faculty and staff who have concerns about working on campus because of health or related issues. We’ve made it very clear to supervisors and department chairs that they should make accommodations whenever possible and appropriate so these employees can protect themselves and their families.

Q. Why do we believe this will be successful when others are changing their plans?

No plan is risk free in the current environment. There have been and will continue to be COVID-19 cases in Dane County among students, as well as among our broader campus community.

Many students have been in Madison over the summer, and these students are reflected among the Dane County COVID case and test positivity numbers. Today we’ve launched a campus dashboard reporting COVID-19 test results. Students who we have tested on campus have had a positivity rate of approximately 1.6% in recent weeks, the same as the current seven day average for Dane County overall.

As students move in this week, we expect to perform about 8,000 tests; going forward we expect to run at least 6,000 tests per week. Let me be blunt about the inevitable effect: This increased testing will identify more positive cases in Dane County, especially initially when students return to campus. This will be particularly noticeable when we do mandatory testing of the approximately 6,500 students arriving at residence halls this week.  But this also means that we are identifying and isolating positive cases before they have a chance to spread.

We are prepared for up and down movements in positivity rates from week to week as our semester progresses, as we’ve seen in local and statewide tracking of other test positivity rates.

One component of our testing program is particularly important – surveillance testing of cohorts of both students and staff, and through campus wastewater sampling. This will give us an early indication if underlying infection rates start to increase and will allow us to make targeted interventions to control spread.

We’re encouraged by our experiences this summer when, as part of our Research Reboot initiative, we have had a number of people already working on campus in labs. The positivity rate among those employees who’ve been tested has been very low (less than 1 percent).

We have followed all medical and public health guidelines with the protocols we’ve put in place across campus, including mandatory face coverings and physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and changes to physical spaces.

Finally, I would note that testing options are evolving rapidly. By the middle to late fall, I expect we will be able to scale up our testing substantially, with more and lower-cost tests. The more that we can test our community, the better control we have over infections.

Q. How will we avoid outbreaks?

We have a process to promptly move students who test positive from residence halls into isolation. We will also move any fellow residents that were in close contact with them into quarantine.

Campus has worked throughout the summer to repurpose its own spaces and contract with additional facilities to ensure we have sufficient space to safely accommodate positive cases and close contacts. We can accommodate approximately 1,000 people – about 15 percent of our expected residence hall population – in our isolation and quarantine rooms. Students may also return home if they wish.

We will also notify and do contact tracing for students testing positive who live off campus; we have so far added 35 new contact tracers at University Health Services and will be hiring more. We’ve been educating off-campus students and their families about the need to have a plan for how they will isolate or quarantine, if needed. We are also working with fraternities and sororities to help those living in chapter houses arrange for their own quarantine and isolation spaces.

It is important to emphasize that the university is doing the testing and contract tracing required for campus to operate this fall. We will not be putting an added burden on Dane County public health staff and facilities. As our testing and contact tracing come online, we will be substantially expanding Dane County’s overall capacity to trace infections.

Q. What about off-campus parties?

It’s natural for students to want to congregate on campus and off here in Madison. We are aware of the role of off-campus parties and large gatherings in spreading the virus at other universities.

These events are prohibited by public health order in Dane County and should students violate this order, they will be held accountable through university disciplinary action (including suspension for repeat violations) and/or municipal sanctions such as substantial fines. We are providing steady messaging to all of our students about the importance of following the health and safety guidelines and have university staff visiting off-campus students on the weekends to emphasize the importance of face coverings and physical distancing.

But we believe students want to be in Madison to learn in person and that they will rise to this opportunity. They will be required to participate in campus COVID-19 training and agree to the Badger Pledge, which indicates a commitment to following public health guidelines.

UW fraternities and sororities have prohibited any social gatherings and events that include alcohol and have pledged that all events will follow county public health guidelines. Again, violations of these guidelines will be sanctioned by both UW-Madison and the City of Madison. At present, Dane County has ordered all bars closed to indoor patrons, including the bars around UW.

Should you observe a public health concern about an individual student or student groups, you may report these to us centrally through a Public Health COVID-19 Concern Form. We are taking all violations seriously and will be holding students accountable.

Q. How does Smart Restart pay attention to equity issues?

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve attempted to shield our lower wage employees from the financial effects of the pandemic. We have provided paid COVID leave; the furloughs we imposed fell more heavily on higher wage employees; senior leadership has taken even greater salary reductions; and in those areas where almost all work disappeared we arranged a work-share program that allowed employees to work part-time and collect unemployment benefits to cover the lost hours.

When we turned to virtual learning last March, we made strong efforts to identify and meet the needs of our students for whom this was most problematic. We provided laptops for those who needed them and will do so again this fall. We have made it clear that we will provide financial assistance to those who need this as well – in the past five months we have distributed over $9.8 million in response to student aid requests.

This fall, I am particularly concerned about our students with food or housing insecurities. These are students who may benefit the most from being on campus, with dedicated space and time to focus on their course work. We know some of these students have felt unable to be at UW-Madison in person because of family obligations.  And we also know that when students drop out for a semester, they are at increased risk of dropping out permanently.

In response to these concerns, Student Affairs, DDEEA, and the Office of Financial Aid have been reaching out to lower-income students. They are trying to help students assess their needs and are making every effort to contact students who have yet to enroll for courses in the fall. For those who can’t come to campus, we have increased online and virtual advising. For those coming to campus, we have increased onboarding programs for incoming and continuing students.

I also want to particularly thank the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, which provided a grant to the Center for Educational Opportunity this spring to provide financial support to students with increased financial problems due to the pandemic and the shifts in academic instruction and campus operations.

Q. What happens if it doesn’t work?

If our testing and monitoring data indicate a rising level of infection that creates a public health threat, we will take steps to close all or parts of campus, returning to virtual work and instruction as needed. This will need to be done in consultation with UW System Administration, which is monitoring the situation at all campuses in the UW System.

There is no single criterion that will push us to make a decision about reversing or scaling down our plans. We are monitoring several quantitative and qualitative factors – these include the percentage of people testing positive and capacity in our on-campus isolation and quarantine spaces, as well as broader community measures such as the county’s percentage of people testing positive and the capacity of our health care system. We will also continue to receive advice from infectious disease experts here on campus as they help us monitor what is happening. We have developed a number of contingency plans that allow us to adjust our operations to a fast-moving situation.

Different universities have made different choices. Most other Big Ten universities are opening this fall. We have been guided throughout our planning process by data, scientific research, and advice from experts. The health protocols we have in place should mitigate the chances of infection transmission on campus. But it is incumbent on our entire community – students and employees – to behave responsibly off campus as well as on campus.

Nothing is certain about this fall. All of us acknowledge that we may have to move to fully virtual instruction before Thanksgiving. But this disease is not going to quickly go away, and we need to figure out how to live with it until there are more robust medical interventions such as a vaccine.

It’s been a strange and long six months. I appreciate all the ways in which our campus community has supported each other and kept the important work of the university moving forward. I ask for your continued support and cooperation as we navigate this situation together.