Planning for a safe return to campus

This blog entry is being emailed to the entire campus community and will be translated into multiple languages.

Shortly after this entry was posted, Public Health Madison & Dane County released Forward Dane, a new plan for community reopening. We appreciate our ongoing partnership with local and state health authorities, who are providing important data and guidance through initiatives like the Forward Dane plan. As Chancellor Blank says in her message below, UW–Madison is also undertaking a phased approach to reopening that is tailored to the needs and resources of our campus and employs strong measures to protect students, faculty, staff and the broader community. While the PHMDC order does not apply to the university because it is a unit of a state agency, we will continue to work closely with the city and county as our plans progress.

We recently ended a very strange semester and celebrated the achievements of more than 8,500 students who received degrees as part of the Class of 2020.  No one could have anticipated the incredible change and challenges presented to us by the COVID-19 pandemic and I can’t tell you enough how impressed and proud I am of our campus’ response.

As we’ve emerged from dealing with the immediate issues of this crisis, we are now looking forward. I want to tell you how we are preparing for a phased reopening over the course of the summer and what we are doing to make decisions about the fall semester.

We all want to be on campus and yearn to restart some of the in-person instruction and social interactions that make UW-Madison so wonderful; however, we are in an incredibly fluid situation with a great deal of uncertainty.  Wisconsin and other states are just beginning to experiment with reopening some businesses and over the next month we will learn whether that can be done without triggering a new wave of infections. We are all still learning more about how COVID-19 is spread, and the ways to mitigate that spread. We certainly know more now than we did in mid-March when we largely closed our physical campus and we will use that knowledge as we begin to reopen.

I can also tell you that UW-Madison will be open this fall, offering a full suite of educational programming to ensure that our 45,000+ students are able to continue their education.  We will certainly make sure that our commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment is as strong as ever.  What I can’t tell you quite yet is the mix of in-person versus online instruction that we will be able to offer.

Whatever the modality of instruction, we expect there will be thousands of students in Madison.  Most of our graduate students have their permanent addresses here.  And many undergraduates will choose to be in their apartments in Madison no matter how classes are delivered. The more that we can offer some face-to-face instruction in smaller discussion sections or seminar courses, the more that those students who are in Madison will benefit.

But there will be some students who want to pursue their studies and who can’t be here. Some of these will be international students; some will be students with underlying health conditions that make it important that they stay in a more isolated environment.  On the other hand, there are also students who must be here in order to complete the requirements for their degree.  This includes students who have to do clinical, field or laboratory training.  We have a group looking at these courses and how we can offer them safely.

All of this suggests that this next year we will likely be offering some hybrid mix of educational offerings.  Larger lectures will almost surely be offered remotely, but we hope to offer face-to-face section meetings for students who can attend.  We need to make a substantial share of the curriculum available remotely.  At the same time, we should try to give as many students a small class/discussion experience as possible, whether in-person or online, to foster the learning and connections that small groups are so well-suited to provide.

In short, it won’t be a normal semester next fall.  And let’s be clear, we’re not just talking about the fall semester.  As we’re looking forward, we’re preparing for an entire academic year where concern over COVID-19 affects our educational programming.

We can also anticipate other changes that affect student life.  We are looking at all the ways we can operate residence halls and dining facilities safely.  We are exploring how to offer student events in new ways, including virtually. Smaller classes would likely need to be held in larger rooms that allow greater physical distancing, which in turn may require scheduling changes. Other events, gatherings and activities may need to be modified or reduced in size to mitigate transmission risk.  And, we’ll all be asked to take steps as individuals to protect our community, such as staying home if we don’t feel well.

Of course, it’s not just about students and classes.  We will need to change the way we do business.  We need to look at cleaning protocols, distances between desks in our offices, masking requirements, testing availability and many other issues.  We need to keep our employees safe.  For some faculty and staff who may face particular health risks, this may mean working from home for much of the next year, if that is possible.

We are thinking through all of these issues, both as we plan for a carefully phased reopening of campus over the summer and as we think about students on campus this coming fall.  As the pandemic has continued, it’s become clear that this is an enormously complicated task. To prepare, we’ve pulled together people with different expertise to advise us and develop plans.

Here are a few of the key ad hoc planning groups of faculty, staff, and students that are at work:

  • Instructional Continuity, which worked on the successful completion of spring semester and finals and is now supporting a fully online summer term.
  • Fall Semester Instruction, which is analyzing scenarios and planning for how we would operate in-person, remotely or in a hybrid model as changing circumstances require us to adapt.
  • Research Reboot Team, which is planning how to resume on-site research and scholarly activities on the Madison campus, at University-owned facilities, and at non-University field sites.
  • The COVID Testing Workgroup, which is identifying the best strategies for using testing to enhance the safety of the campus community.
  • Resumption of Campus Operations Workgroup, which is planning for a phased return of employees beginning early summer, and the protocols necessary as more employees return to campus.
  • Student Affairs, which is planning and coordinating with the advising community to virtually deliver SOAR, adapt student engagement programming to remote delivery and increase the availability of medical, counseling and wellness services by phone and online.

This is only a partial list of some of our major campus planning efforts.

Some of these plans, like our delivery of SOAR, will be ready soon. Others, like our fall semester instructional plans, cannot be completed until further into the summer when we can better gauge the state and national situation, which changes by the day.

We have targeted a date no later than the end of July to make a final decision on how many in-person classes we can run, in consultation with UW System and state and local health officials. I want to acknowledge the frustration that this lack of certainty causes students and parents. We’re balancing everyone’s desire to plan for the fall with our need to provide a safe environment for our community. We’ll continue to provide updates with as much information as we are able throughout the summer months.

While we face some big challenges, so does every other college and university around the world. I believe that we are better positioned than many because we came into this on a sound financial footing, and because of the innovative and hard-working faculty and staff and the dedicated students and alumni we have at UW-Madison.

We will find a way through the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis. We certainly will offer a full educational program for students next year.  We will emerge from this with some new skills and knowledge that may make us a stronger institution in the long run.

And when this virus is defeated, we will all gather again on the Terrace to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate our shared community.