FILE- University of Wisconsin System President and former Gov. Tommy Thompson addresses a crowd at a March 28, 2016, campaign event for then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was running in the Republican presidential primary, at the River Steel plant in West Salem. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
FILE- University of Wisconsin System President and former Gov. Tommy Thompson addresses a crowd at a March 28, 2016, campaign event for then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was running in the Republican presidential primary, at the River Steel plant in West Salem. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

But a day after Tommy Thompson’s pronouncement, UW Madison warns of a spike in COVID-19 cases as a variant virus shows up in the area.

Barring another coronavirus surge, at least three-fourths of all University of Wisconsin System classes will be taught in person for the fall semester, a move made possible by continued low virus cases on campuses, system Interim President Tommy Thompson said Thursday.

During a news conference, Thompson praised UW campuses, saying precautions taken to limit the spread of the contagious virus along with increased testing have resulted in a systemwide positivity rate below 1%. System schools have done a good job of teaching online, he said, but in-person learning is the preferred method, and he believes it can be done safely by fall. 

“I want to make sure that we have a minimum of 75% of the students in person, in class, on our campuses,” Thompson said, noting that chancellors at system schools told him they support boosting face-to-face instruction and said they believe they can safely return to that instruction model. 

By Friday, however, those expectations had to be somewhat tempered as officials at the Madison campus warned of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, a day after a more contagious variant of the virus was detected in the county, according to a report from the Associated Press.

The email told of a “significant increase” in cases among students on and off campus. There were 112 confirmed cases reported Wednesday and 99 more on Thursday, according to the message from Jake Baggott, the head of University Health Services.

“Equally concerning, contact tracing suggests that many of the students who have tested positive had attended gatherings, sometimes without wearing masks,” Baggott said.

Campuses moved classes to an online-only format for the remainder of last year’s spring semester after the pandemic surfaced in Wisconsin in mid-March. Students returned for in-person classes in the fall, but a surge of COVID-19 cases forced schools to finish the year using virtual instruction. 

Returning to more in-person courses is possible, Thompson said, in part because of the continued rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations that will include educators receiving the vaccine beginning March 1 and students getting it this summer. 

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Leaders at UW System schools across the state endorsed the concept of a return to more face-to-face classes in the fall. In a joint statement issued Thursday, chancellors at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and UW-River Falls said they support teachers and students again being able to interact in person, and are confident they can do so safely. 

“The opportunity to engage with their fellow students and our amazing faculty and staff is such a critical part of the Blugold experience, and our community benefits as well as we bring back our students for the fall semester,” James Schmidt, UW-Eau Claire chancellor, said in the release.

UW-RIver Falls Chancellor Connie Foster said her university is “feeling very hopeful about our intended return to a more traditional fall semester.”

In an email to UW-La Crosse students, Chancellor Joe Gow said that campus is planning on as many as 95% in-person classes for the fall semester.

Some university faculty members have expressed concern about the spread or COVID-19 as students return to classrooms. But many have said they prefer face-to-face instruction and believe it can be done safely once students and faculty are vaccinated. 

Peter Hart-Brinson, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of sociology and communication journalism who is president of the university’s United Faculty and Academic Staff, said most faculty look forward to returning to traditional learning, as long it can be done in a safe manner. University administrators have made assurances they will alter the plan to teach most courses in person if another COVID-19 outbreak occurs, he said.

While most will welcome the traditional learning model, some students and faculty prefer online learning, he said, and he hopes accommodations may be possible to allow for that learning model to continue for them.  

As for the present surge in cases on the Madison campus, no immediate mitigation steps were being taken, Baggott said, but the university was preparing to take action if necessary. He said that could include limiting access to or temporarily closing recreation facilities; placing residence halls under quarantine; increasing testing frequency for students off campus; and directing students to stay at home except for attending class and work.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.