The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced plans Wednesday to reopen campus to students and staff for the Fall 2020 semester. Under the plan called “Smart Restart,” officials say instruction taking place under a hybrid model of in-person and virtual sessions, increased guidelines around gatherings, and multiple forms of testing for COVID-19 will allow students to return to campus safely.
“Reopening is a very complex process with a lot of moving parts,” said UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank in a media briefing. “It’s going to require changes to virtually every aspect of our operations.”
Students and faculty will be required to wear face masks when in a public space, and in-person classes will be scheduled to accommodate using larger classrooms allowing for physical distancing. Classes larger than 50 or 100 students will be held online. A virtual option will be available for all classes for students not comfortable attending class in-person.
All classes will move to virtual instruction after Thanksgiving, as campus officials believe students traveling home will increase the chances of spreading the disease. In the event that a second surge of COVID-19 cases begins to appear, Blank said the university will shift classes online before Thanksgiving.
Residence halls will be open with new restrictions, such as closing rooms that accommodate three or more people, closing lounges and other gathering spaces, and generally trying to restrict movement within the halls. However, officials are hoping students will self-regulate their behaviors.
“We will use social norming a lot to encourage our students to do the right thing, to take care of each other and to make sure that other people are safe,” said Lori Reeser, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Approximately 5% of the dorms will be left intentionally vacant for students who contract COVID-19 to quarantine. The university would have to re-evaluate its plan to stay open in the event those spaces begin to fill up beyond capacity.
“We’re going to pay close attention to what’s going on locally in informing our plans,” said Jake Baggot, executive director of university health services.
The reopening plan will also include multiple layers of testing. Throughout the campus, there will be free drop-in testing centers, where Blank said someone could theoretically get tested daily. Additionally, the university will be testing groups of volunteers for surveillance testing and targeted testing for specific groups such as those in the residence halls.
The university’s testing plan will also include in-house contact tracers meant to take the burden off of Public Health Madison and Dane County. Blank said she is hopeful there will be some cost-sharing for these efforts coming from the state.
So far, the chancellor said the university is expecting close to full enrollment in the fall, with the exception of international students as some visa requirements have changed for different countries. Still, the university is expecting a financial hit.
The most optimistic estimate for what the university will have lost heading into October is around $150 million, said Blank, and that is with all operations up and running.
“It’s not going to look like our normal campus operations. It’s going to be different but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be worse,” Blank said. “I actually think that there’s going to be some sense of camaraderie that being in this together, which if we can create that type of culture on campus, we will get people to follow the health protocols and to respect each other in a way that keeps everyone healthy.”