Bowman Hall on the campus of University of Wisconsin–Stout
Bowman Hall on the campus of University of Wisconsin–Stout in Menomonie. (Shutterstock)

BMOC: Bring Mask on Campus, and other safeguards

Students, faculty and staff will return to at least some Wisconsin universities for the fall semester amid ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, although schools will continue to make use of online options, UW System officials said.

Last week administrators at UW-Whitewater announced the planned resumption of in-person instruction for students and faculty for the fall semester. UW-Platteville officials announced on Wednesday they plan to do the same. 

On Friday administrators at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls issued a joint news release stating those schools will resume in-person instruction as well. Each school outlined actions to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

Administrators at those universities said they are working on plans to allow students, faculty and others to return to campus safely. Such measures as social distancing, extra cleaning measures, and the wearing of masks will be implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they said. 

University chancellors said learning in classrooms is critical to students’ education. That traditional learning style was halted in March with the outbreak of the coronavirus, and students and faculty spent the remainder of the school year learning online. 

UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank said a return to face-to-face learning is vital, especially at her university, where much instruction is hands-on. 

“As Wisconsin’s polytechnic university, it is tremendously important to us that our students are able to be on campus this fall,” she said in the release.

The safety of students, faculty and others on campus is a priority, university leaders said, and planning efforts continue to ensure social distancing and other precautions are workable. UW System President Ray Cross said Thursday the state’s public universities will resume classroom learning this fall as much as possible, with safeguards. 

Maintaining social distance on often-crowded campuses could prove challenging, administrators acknowledged. To ensure proper space to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will require flexible scheduling, they said, and is likely to include such options as a mix of classroom and online learning for some courses. 

For instance, at UW-Stout, students will take part in a combination of face-to-face and online learning, as well as a mix of both for some courses, university officials said. Classroom, laboratory and studio space density students to ensure social distancing have been completed, and additional equipment and technology will be purchased to provide for safe instruction.

Plans call for students living in dormitories, and precautions, including extra cleaning, are being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in those locations, officials said. UW-Eau Claire is working with the local health department to implement plans, including dorm living, said Michael Knuth, associate director of the university’s integrated marketing and communications department.

At UW-Stout, plans call for two students per dorm room and such practices as enhanced cleaning, social distancing and the wearing of masks in common areas, said Doug Mell, the university’s director of executive communications and external relations.

Details about resuming in-person instruction continue to be worked out, Knuth said, noting the university is taking steps to avoid large gatherings and could restrict outside visitors to campus. 

“A lot of what we are going to do is still being determined,” Knuth said. “We are looking at all of those possibilities in terms of (coursework) delivery to make sure we can do this is a safe manner.”

As a step to contain COVID-19, he said, UW-Eau Claire may have students finish coursework virtually after Thanksgiving break.

“We are taking a strong look at that,” Knuth said. “When they return to school after being at home, that is a time when they could bring back the disease.”

Peter Hart-Brinson, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of sociology and communication journalism who also is president of the university’s United Faculty and Academic Staff, said most faculty prefer in-person instruction. But some, especially those with health issues, have expressed concern about returning to the classroom with COVID-19 still present, he said. 

Knuth and Mell said their universities will accommodate faculty who are not comfortable with in-person instruction because of health concerns, allowing them to teach courses online.   

Questions also have been raised about whether some students may decide against returning to school in the fall, Hart-Brinson said, prompting concerns about a corresponding dip in revenue at a time when the UW System already is bracing for a budget hit because of lost state revenue due to the pandemic. 

Plans already call for university system furloughs for some, he said, depending on the depth of budget cuts. 

“We don’t know yet how this is all going to work,” he said. “Right now we’re hoping for the best.”