Creating the New Normal: Returning to Campus

As I walk around campus and my neighborhood, I see hopeful signs that winter is finally ending. Snow piles are almost gone, lake ice has melted, and crocuses have sprouted in neighbors’ lawns.

Similarly, while the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, there are hopeful signs that a new beginning is finally in sight.

This week, I toured our vaccination clinic, which has fully vaccinated nearly 5,000 employees and students, while thousands of others have received vaccinations off campus. Our Safer Badgers testing program has been working as intended and we recently had our lowest 7-day positivity rate, 0.1 percent. We’re planning to gather in Camp Randall on May 8 to send off our graduates, even if physically distanced and without family and friends in the stadium.

We still have weeks to go before the end of the semester and our success with low infection rates must continue. The scars of this past year – where many have experienced the loss of family and friends, isolation and depression – will linger for a long time.  But it’s time to plan for life after the pandemic and the beginning of the fall semester.

“What will the fall look like?” is the question I hear most frequently, coming from students, faculty, staff, parents and our newly-admitted students. I want to share our plans with you. I’ll also recognize that there are a number of things we can’t and don’t know at this stage.

I feel confident that next semester will look more like Fall 2019 than Fall 2020, with offices occupied and throngs of students changing classes in the middle of the day.  But it will be different than before – it’s a new normal, not our old normal.

Faculty have learned a lot about the use of new teaching technologies, and the ways in which we teach and collaborate on research endeavors will change.  Many of us will travel less and do more meetings online. Some groups of employees may continue working partially, or fully, remotely. Concerns about public health will be top of mind and we’ll see more people wearing masks in public spaces even when the threat of COVID-19 wanes.

We are a community that thrives on the connections between people who converse, learn, and discover together, in person. It is the connections and interactions that make UW–Madison a great university and that bring students here for a high-quality residential learning experience.

Students make friends with people from entirely different backgrounds; students interact with top faculty in the classroom; faculty talk after a seminar and launch a new research project; and all of us create a campus culture through concerts, sporting events, Terrace evenings, visiting speakers, student organizations and a constant flow of visitors from around the world who come here to speak and to learn.

We’ve done the best we possibly can under the circumstances of the past year and technology has been a remarkable bridge in many respects. But face-to-face interactions are critical to building a campus community that advances our missions of scholarship, teaching and service.

We want to return to what makes UW–Madison special, and that means safely returning to our classrooms and labs for in-person learning and research.

Currently, nearly all of the courses that were offered in-person in the fall of 2019, will return to in-person instruction in fall 2021. There will be a smaller number of hybrid and online classes, similar to what we’ve offered in the past, and even more that integrate technology more directly into an in-person learning experience. Our students should plan to be in Madison in the fall. Our dining facilities, academic and research resources will all be open and our residence halls will be fully occupied.

We are preparing contingencies for international students who may face challenges obtaining visas to return to the United States. For now, international students should register for a full schedule of classes for fall 2021 and continue monitoring the information being shared by International Student Services.

Beyond classes, there are many experiences that we all treasure and will experience again soon: a summer evening at the Terrace with friends; a study group meeting at College Library or in a residence hall lounge; watching a concert at the Hamel Music Performance Center; volunteering in the community; attending a student org meeting and a fall Saturday at Camp Randall. We will once again run into a friend or classmate on campus and spontaneously grab coffee or a Babcock ice cream cone.

How do we get there? I hope that all students and staff will choose to get vaccinated this spring and summer.  We will make vaccinations available as widely as we possibly can through University Health Services, although the dosages we’ve been receiving here on campus have been very limited so far.

Many students may not be able to get a vaccination appointment until the summer, when vaccination sites on campus and elsewhere should be open to everybody with large numbers of doses.  We will also offer vaccinations to anybody who arrives on campus this fall and wishes to be vaccinated. Vaccines are the surest way to protect yourself and others, and we strongly urge everybody who is eligible to take advantage of the growing availability in the coming weeks and months.

At some level, I expect that the safety protocols of the past year will remain with us. There will be those who want to remain masked; there may be some situations where group gathering sizes are limited. We will have testing available next fall, although it will not be required of anybody who has been fully vaccinated. Specific health guidance for the fall will depend upon the ongoing decline in COVID cases and the best public health recommendations.

My hope is that almost all of our employees who are able will choose to be vaccinated by late spring or early summer. Although some of our employees have continued to be on campus during the pandemic, we expect most campus employees to return to work on campus during the first part of August; however, some units may want to re-establish a greater onsite presence earlier if needed. We will direct all supervisors to continue providing flexibility in working arrangements where possible through at least August 1, based on ongoing disruptions in schools, childcare and summer activities.

We know that this last year has demonstrated that some jobs can be done well from a remote location and I suspect some staff members will want to continue to work remotely at least part of the time.  We’re preparing a set of principles and policy guidance that will inform the implementation of equitable remote work practices in a post-COVID environment. Details in all of the areas that I describe above will be shared as soon as we know more.

One thing that we’ve learned during this year is that our sense of community is stronger than the pandemic. Just as we made multiple changes on campus to adjust to the challenges of the past year, we will do the work needed to facilitate our return.

Of course, things may look slightly different than they did before the pandemic – that’s the new normal. With your help, we can fully return to campus this fall and reestablish the large, interactive, sometimes noisy and always exciting community that is UW–Madison.