Chancellor Blank: Summer update on Smart Restart plans

To our UW employees,

I hope you’ve managed to find ways to enjoy the nice weather and to take a break from your usual activities during this most unusual and difficult summer. It’s been more than a month since we launched our Smart Restart initiative, with plans to bring our students back to campus for hybrid instruction, beginning on Sept. 2.

During that time, neither the pandemic nor our institution have stood still. Today, I wanted to update you on our preparations and some recent developments that shape our planning.

We are committed to our mission as a world-class education and research institution. As a premier residential university, we believe deeply in the value of face-to-face instruction. This is particularly true for students who do not have access to first-rate technology, reliable internet, or a residential environment conducive to effective learning. For these reasons, we feel it is critical to return instructional activities back to campus where we can do so safely. Similarly, there is important research work that can only be done on campus.

We are doing everything we can to reduce health risks for students, staff and faculty. Our plans are informed by the latest science and public health information. They include a robust testing regime, contact tracing, symptom monitoring, enhanced cleaning protocols, mandatory wearing of face coverings in university buildings and public spaces where physical distancing isn’t possible, and physical distancing in all classrooms. These steps, along with our plans for a mixture of face-to-face and remote instruction, makes us optimistic about our ability to reopen some on-campus activities this fall.

We are carefully monitoring the recent rise of COVID-19 cases within Dane County and the state of Wisconsin. We’ve started to see some improvement of those numbers within Dane County in recent weeks and are keeping in close contact with local officials on these trends. We are not changing our reopening plans at this time.

Employees who are currently and successfully working remotely, and who do not need to be on campus to fulfill their responsibilities this fall, are expected to continue working remotely. Employees who will return to campus for work should be receiving instructions from their supervisor in early August. If you are unclear about the fall plans for you and your unit, I urge you to contact your supervisor.

For jobs that require an in-person presence, units are being instructed to modify on-site work schedules to reduce the number of employees in a given place at one time. This is particularly important for areas with a high number of shared space environments.

I know many of you have school-aged children at home, and we’ve also watched as several Dane County K-12 districts, including the Madison Metropolitan School District, have announced plans to begin the year with online learning, at least through October.

We know how difficult this is for our families because it means that many of you will be juggling your children’s learning activities and childcare needs alongside your work schedule. For those who may be experiencing this situation I’d encourage you to talk with your supervisor. Wherever possible, we will try to offer flexibility in work schedules.

While we track off-campus developments, we are continuing to take major steps forward on campus with our Smart Restart preparations. In recent weeks, we have reopened several services, such as the Terrace, materials pickup from the Libraries and the Chazen Museum of Art, and continue to work on many others in advance of the fall semester.

In recent days, we’ve also released additional information on our support of international students, testing plans, instructor safety, employee safety, student course selection and overall reopening plans. As I have noted before, teams organized by campus leaders are working with hundreds of staff members around campus.

I’m sorry to say that we have more bad budget news from the state. Governor Evers has called for $250 million in cost savings across state government in the current fiscal year, which runs from July 2020 to June 2021. That means that state agencies will have to reduce their spending by this amount over the year. While the exact cut to the UW System is still unclear, it certainly means that this campus will face a large additional reduction in state funds over the year. I appreciate the work that Interim System President Tommy Thompson is doing to minimize these losses across the System. UW System schools are central drivers of the economy and are already facing large revenue losses because of the pandemic.

While I want to make clear that fiscal considerations are not the primary force in our decision to offer a hybrid model of classes this fall, it is true that our budget next year is also greatly affected by the return of students. At this point, we expect a strong returning class, but nothing is certain until school actually starts this fall. I will be in touch with greater details about our financial situation after the fall semester starts, and what the implications are for budget cuts here on campus. We will know more about the reduction of state funds by that point as well.

We continue to do our best to communicate these developments by meeting with governance leadership, hosting live webchats aimed at different audiences, answering your questions by email and posting the most recent information on the Smart Restart website. In addition to the website, we have plans to launch an educational campaign around our expectations for following health and safety protocols during the fall semester.

I recognize the frustration, anxiety and stress the pandemic continues to create on a daily basis on so many different levels of our lives. I am hopeful, however, when I hear about the efforts of our health workers and our researchers who are helping us to understand and beat this disease. I also appreciate the many campus efforts to reach out and help our community and state at this time, whether it’s the engineers who are designing personal protective equipment to slow and halt the spread of the virus, or the social sciences and humanities experts who are helping people to cope with it. Working together, we will make it through these difficult times.

I will keep you updated with the latest developments in the weeks to come. In the meantime, please continue to wear face coverings, keep your distance and wash your hands! I hope to see you soon and to join many of you in returning to work on campus in the next month.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank