La Crosse campus COVID
Despite college officials warning students to social distance, wear masks, and displaying signs like this one on the UW-Eau Claire campus, COVID-19 outbreaks are still occurring on campuses. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Wisconsin communities see spikes as students put the emphasis on “social” and less on “distance.”

Officials at University of Wisconsin System schools and other colleges across the country took unprecedented measures to prepare for the return of students amid the coronavirus pandemic, but just days into the fall semester outbreaks of the contagious virus are evidence of the challenges of slowing its spread. 

Campuses across the state are reporting hundreds of cases of COVID-19 since the school year began for most of them on Wednesday. By the time classes started schools had reported more than 300 cases, a number that has grown considerably since then, officials said.  

Outbreaks of cases at some colleges have prompted the quarantining students and the restriction of activities to prevent further spread of the virus. At UW-Madison, Chancellor Rebecca Blank on Monday directed the university’s undergraduate students to limit in-person contact, meaning they are to avoid social gatherings and leave their residences only for activities deemed essential during the next two weeks. 

That action comes amid a spike of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the university. On Sunday 149 positive cases of the virus were confirmed, following 116 on Saturday and 93 on Friday. 

Some other universities also are experiencing significant increases of the virus. At UW-Eau Claire, just four days after school started, 69 students had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday night, including 17 on campus and 52 who live off campus. 

University officials have placed 184 students living on six dormitory floors on quarantine to prevent further spread of the virus. Those students must remain in their rooms, away from others, for 14 days, during which they will receive meals, books and other materials. 

“This is happening, we’re on top of it and we have programs in place to manage this,” Warren Anderson, UW-Eau Claire vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, and student affairs, said in a news release.

Other universities are beginning to report COVID-19 cases too. At UW-Whitewater last week, 16 positive cases of the virus had been reported, the same figure recorded at UW-Milwaukee. Officials said those numbers likely have grown since then as students have spent time together. 

More detailed information about COVID-19 cases should be available later this week, UW System officials said, with the launch of a dashboard to track cases across campuses. The system is offering a combination of in-person and online instruction along with detailed plans to try to reduce virus spread. The effort also includes a $32 million COVID-19 testing system called for by system President Tommy Thompson. 

Restricting student activities as the new school year begins isn’t something Blank or other university officials want to do. But doing so seems necessary as elevated testing numbers indicate the virus is spreading more rapidly, she said.  

“We’ve reached the point where we need to quickly flatten the curve of infection, or we will lose the opportunity to have campus open to students this semester, which we know many students truly want,” she said.

UW System schools have devised thorough plans to protect students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities, said Mark Pitsch, UW System media relations director. The system and personnel at individual universities will continue to consult with local health officials and medical experts to determine how best to respond to ongoing situations related to COVID-19, he said. 

No single factor would force the possible closure of a campus or campuses, Pitsch said, but “our universities are monitoring a range of factors, including campus cases, isolation and quarantine capacity, and community measures.”

The growth in COVID-19 cases at UW-Madison has been mirrored in Dane County, which set records for virus cases during the past weekend, with 167 positive cases reported on Saturday and 193 on Sunday. The previous high of 141 happened on June 30.

Public Health Madison and Dane County officials, along with UW-Madison, on Friday directed 420 members of nine fraternities and sororities to quarantine for at least the next two weeks. As of that date, 38 of them had tested positive for the virus. 

COVID-19 surges are occurring at campuses across the US as a new school year begins. For instance, the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,000 positive cases of the virus in recent weeks. Northwestern University in Chicago, Michigan State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have shifted to an online-only learning model because of concerns about the virus. And the Minnesota Board of Regents has ordered that classes be online for two weeks at three campuses. 

Many school teachers and staff at college and K-12 levels have expressed worries about the spread of COVID-19 with the resuming of in-person instruction this fall, with some retiring early rather than risking their health by returning to classrooms. Many said don’t expect that schools will remain open to in-person instruction for the entire semester because COVID-19 cases will become too numerous. 

In Eau Claire, City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese acknowledged challenges containing the virus in college settings. Her department is working with UW-Eau Claire to try to contain virus spread, she said, noting students interacting socially without wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing “is still our highest concern.”

That concern has grown in recent days as the start of the school year has meant a spike in virus cases in the county, which reported 36 new cases on both Sunday and Monday, the highest one-day totals there. Public health worries continue amid repeated public health warnings of the possible spread of COVID-19 among attendees of several Eau Claire taverns on Water Street near the university, in which students congregating in close proximity without wearing masks has become commonplace. 

“I’ve thought since April that reopening for face-to-face instruction in the middle of a hot pandemic would be a mistake, and that the wiser course would be to go all-in on improving online instruction,” said Jon Loomis, an English professor at UW-Eau Claire.

Classes will begin at UW-Stout in Menomonie on Wednesday. University officials are monitoring COVID-19 at other universities and hoping the detailed plans they have in place to contain the virus are successful, university spokesman Doug Mell said. 

University staff have been communicating with parents and students since summer about practices to prevent the spread of the virus when school begins, Mell said. On- and off-campus students will receive a welcome package that includes items such as face masks and a digital thermometer as preventative measures. 

“We are promoting health and safety practices … to keep our students, faculty and staff healthy, to keep UW-Stout facilities open, and to keep others safe,” he said.