UW-Eau Claire is one of eight campuses that will be switching to online classes Nov. 30 due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. That list could grow. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
UW-Eau Claire is one of eight campuses that will be switching to online classes Nov. 30 due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. That list could grow. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

The number of campuses switching to virtual classes could grow as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. 

Eight UW-System schools have announced they will adopt an online-only education model after Thanksgiving break amid a coronavirus surge that continues to worsen in Wisconsin and overwhelm hospitals.  

In a jointly issued statement, chancellors at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, and UW-River Falls on Thursday said students at those schools will complete coursework virtually for the rest of the semester after Thanksgiving break. Those campuses join UW-Madison, UW-Superior, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Platteville, and UW-Whitewater, who had previously announced plans to go remote after the break.  

Online-only courses will begin Nov. 30. 

The decision to go virtual comes on a day in which Wisconsin reported a one-day record 7,497 new COVID-19 cases, the third successive day of more than 7,000 cases. The state also reported 58 more deaths from the virus Thursday, following a record 66 on Tuesday and 62 Wednesday, and 264 additional hospitalizations because of the virus.

While the number of on-campus coronavirus cases have lessened since the start of the school year thanks to extensive protective measures, the virus’ infection rate among off-campus students and the general community has skyrocketed in recent weeks. 

“We all had high hopes of returning to campus after the fall break to continue our in-person classes,” UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt said in a statement. “But with these two pieces of important information [hospitals’ low capacity numbers and Gov. Tony Evers’ recommendations to stay home] within a 24-hour period—it was a literal game-changer … In the spirit of public good requested by the governor, we need to pull together to help keep as many people safe and at home during the remainder of the semester.”

Hospitals in west-central Wisconsin, where UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, and UW-River Falls are located report being at 100% of capacity as the number of coronavirus cases in the region continues to surge and shows no sign of relenting. Positivity rates for the virus in some parts of the region during the past week have exceeded 40% and 50%, numbers public health officials have called alarmingly high. The commonly agreed-upon safe threshold to begin reopening is 5% positivity.

As a sign of the serious nature of Wiconsin’s COVID-19 situation, Evers on Tuesday issued an executive order urging people to stay home to slow the spread of the virus. During a televised address, Evers once again urged Wisconsinites to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, and refrain from gathering with others.

On Wednesday, UW System President Tommy Thompson issued a statement to System chancellors directing them to “take even more aggressive steps” to limit student and staff movement at the system’s 13 universities as coronavirus cases climb.    

Students, faculty and staff who wish to remain on campus after Thanksgiving for such purposes as research and lab work will be able to do so as buildings, residence halls, library and food services will remain open. Those who plan to return to System campuses after Thanksgiving must undergo a COVID-19 test before leaving campus and be tested twice before they return to classrooms or dorms, Thompson said. If they test positive, quarantine and isolation protocols will be followed.

At UW-Eau Claire, Schmidt said students and employees who return to campus after Thanksgiving will be tested twice weekly for the remaining three weeks of the semester. 

The switch to remote instruction does not reflect a significant rise in coronavirus cases among students or employees, and does not impact planned university operations for the spring semester, chancellors at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls said. 

Instead, it underscores the severity of the outbreak in Wisconsin as many hospitals across the state report being at or near capacity for treating COVID-19 patients. Wisconsin Hospital Association statistics show 2,077 patients hospitalized with the virus and 424 in intensive care beds. 

On Wednesday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard said the state has reached a “tipping point” in terms of having so many COVID-19 patients hospitalized that treatment may not be available for some, resulting in additional deaths.   

Multiple efforts, including mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, frequent cleaning and a recently announced antigen testing program, have been made to ensure student and faculty safety on college campuses amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But even with those measures and relatively low on-campus COVID-19 cases, the risk of contracting the virus as its numbers spike has become too great to continue in-person classes, UW-Stout Chancellor Katherine Frank said.  

“The health and safety of our faculty, staff and students are of the utmost importance,” Frank said. “However, we live, work and play in our communities. When we have hospitals at full capacity, a sudden spike could overwhelm our local health care system, and we have to do whatever we can to prevent that.”

Finishing the semester online only is the “right decision” given the growing spread of COVID-19, UW-River Falls Chancellor Connie Foster said. Thompson urged the three universities to make a regional decision about whether to close campus to in-person learning, she said. 

“We have a duty to respond to the governor’s call to protect our state, and with making this move we’re doing just that,” Foster said.

Many UW System faculty members have expressed concerns about face-to-face instruction, saying they increasingly feel their health and that of students is in danger as the number of COVID-19 cases climbs. On Oct. 28 the UW-Eau Claire math department sent Schmidt and others on campus an email urging online-only instruction after Thanksgiving.  

Freshman UW-Eau Claire student Lydia Hester praised the decision to go to an online-only model but said she is concerned the virus could still spread in dorms and at off-campus parties by students who remain. 

“All campus buildings will remain open, including residence halls,” she said, “so I am concerned that not much will change.”

Spiking COVID-19 cases earlier in the semester prompted online-only coursework for two-week periods at UW-Madison, UW-La Crosse and UW-River Falls. Those schools resumed in-person learning after positive cases of the virus declined.