Success or survival? UW-Madison's opening had ups and downs

UW-Madison junior Lauren Feigas predicted a "huge outbreak" when students returned for the fall semester.

"It’s a disaster waiting to happen," she said last summer.

Feigas wasn’t alone in her pessimistic prognosis at the beginning of the school year. However, after a shaky semester in which one in every 10 students became infected with COVID-19, she and some members of the campus community softened their stance and feel UW-Madison did the best it could given the circumstances. Others still question the university’s decision to bring students back at all.

When COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in early September, Chancellor Rebecca Blank knew she had to try something. So on Sept. 9, the fifth day of classes, when the university reported 404 infections of the nearly 5,300 it would accumulate by the end of the semester, she announced a two-week lockdown for two large dorms and a campus-wide pause on face-to-face instruction, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

"A lot of people thought that we would never recover from that," she said in an interview on Friday, the final day of the semester. "More than one person has come up to me and said, ‘I thought we’d never get back to in-person classes. I thought you’d have to send everyone home.’ And, you know, we did recover from that."

Feigas, a retailing and consumer behavior major, is one of several students and instructors who shared their opinions on the university’s divisive reopening plan at the start of the semester and agreed to be re-interviewed this month. She now said the semester unfolded better than she expected.

"I appreciate that they didn’t give up and just shut down," she said. "They tried their best with the resources they had."

Blank wishes in hindsight that UW-Madison ramped up its public health messaging and rolled out prevention measures to students earlier in August. But she also said the outbreaks and subsequent shelter-in-place may have been unavoidable.

"Perhaps you had to go through that experience in order for that behavioral change to occur," she said. "I can’t tell you whether we could’ve prevented it by acting sooner or whether we had to go through the experiential learning."

Blank said it was an "enormous victory" that UW-Madison’s infection rate since October fell below both Dane County’s and the state’s.

Roughly the same number of students graduated this December as in previous years, she said. Only about 60 more students withdrew this fall compared to 2019, in part, because UW-Madison extended the deadline. Mundane university operations, like processing payroll and grant applications, continued on as if UW-Madison’s 20,000 employees were working on campus even though most set up shop in basements and at kitchen tables.

"I’m delighted we got to the end of the semester," Blank said. "I think we got there in reasonably good shape."

The New York Times began tracking coronavirus cases on college campuses over the summer. According to data last updated Dec. 11, UW-Madison’s COVID-19 caseload came in fourth nationally, trailing only Ohio State, the University of Florida, and Clemson.

That sounds like an unflattering achievement — and certainly, one critic points to as an indication of how well UW-Madison’s reopening plan worked.

But others applaud the university for at least being transparent with its COVID-19 data. Some institutions shared little or no data, leaving their campus communities uninformed and prone to speculation. Supporters also point out that UW-Madison’s widespread testing plan inevitably identified more cases and drove up numbers, unlike schools that only tested symptomatic students.

"I wouldn’t call it a success story but I also wouldn’t say (UW-Madison) epically failed," freshman Natalie Unger said. "I have friends who went to other schools where testing wasn’t even a thing."

Unger sometimes felt like a sitting duck living in Witte Hall, one of the dorms with the highest infection rates. By the end of the semester, she knew of just one other person who hadn’t contracted COVID-19.

She pushed away feelings of FOMO — the fear of missing out — when she saw other students having fun at the expense of local public health orders. Still, she met many new friends living on campus, and her precautions paid off. When Unger took her last COVID-19 test before heading home for Thanksgiving, it came back negative.

Freshman Lexi Horan admits there were moments at the beginning of the semester when she regretted coming to campus. On the day she moved in, she wondered whether her days would be mostly going in and out of her dorm to pick up food.

"I’m not going to lie," she said this week. "That’s exactly what it looked like. I rarely left my room."

She said her social life, however, was better than she expected because she made close connections with people on her floor. Several of her friends were immunocompromised so she said the group tried to be extra careful — but four of them still got the virus anyway.

Horan had a punishing academic workload, which she attributes to professors piling on extra work to compensate for the online format. For example, the average score on one of her psychology exams in previous years was 75%. But she said her section’s average was a letter grade and a half below that — an indication to her that students are generally struggling with online learning.

The semester started off with great expectations around face-to-face classes. In July, university officials planned on 45% of classes including some form of in-person instruction. By the first day of classes, that figure dropped to 36% and after the two-week lockdown, only 26% resumed a face-to-face or hybrid format.

Philosophy professor Harry Brighouse was among the minority of instructors who taught classes face-to-face for most of the fall. All in all, he said it was a good semester.

"Good is relative, right?" he asked.

During the two-week lockdown when he had to move his classes online, Brighouse found it difficult to foster freewheeling discussions. Students forgot to unmute themselves or were hesitant to interrupt others. Some had poor internet connectivity. Had Brighouse kept his classes online the rest of the semester, he is "confident" they would have learned less.

The university surveyed students this fall and found a mixed picture of what students would like their spring classes to be. Of the 17% of undergraduates who responded, 45% wanted most or all classes online and 41% wanted most or all classes in person.

COVID-19 came up rarely in class, Brighouse said. Students wanted to talk about ethics. It was "just extraordinarily normal" — exactly what students craved in a semester that was anything but.

English and Asian-American studies professor Timothy Yu called the reopening plan "disastrous" in the first Faculty Senate meeting of the semester.

Yu said this month that he still stands by his criticism and worries about the long-term implications of the September outbreaks.

"Where did all of those cases go?" he asked. "Out into the community? Did they seed some of what we now see across the state? It’s impossible to say right now but given what we’ve seen, was it responsible to open the way we did? I would say no."

Blank said there’s a lack of clear evidence of community spread when considering the timing of the campus’ and county’s cases, as well as where the post-September spikes were concentrated, which she said were found to be in groups or areas not closely affiliated with the university.

"Do I want to say that there was absolutely no infection that spread from people who were students to people who were not students?" she said. "Obviously I can’t say that and don’t want to, but I don’t think there’s clear evidence at all that what happened on campus here in Madison had a strong effect on what happened in the community."

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, arguably the most vocal critic of UW-Madison’s decision to reopen, said the university eventually ramped up testing and contact tracing to a level that kept campus cases under control. However, he still believes UW-Madison should not have opened up its dorms this fall nor does he think the university should next semester.

"I think the university at this point, like the rest of us, knows a lot more and is much better prepared for the spring," he said. In conversations with UW-Madison and University of Wisconsin System leaders, they have all "agreed to disagree but we won’t let that interfere with our shared goal of keeping people safe."

UW-Madison officials were unable to say this week whether next semester will include a smaller or larger percentage of in-person classes than was offered in the fall. Dorm capacity is expected to be roughly 68%, down from 88% during fall move-in.

Brianna Wanek is one of the nearly 1,200 students who canceled their housing contracts mid-semester. The decision came after a rocky September for her. She tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the lockdown began Sept. 9.

Wanek’s 10 days in isolation housing felt like a "frat house," she said. No house fellows supervised the students, garbage cans and dumpsters overflowed, bathroom drains clogged with hair and the conditions went unaddressed for most of Wanek’s stay until her isolation housing roommate emailed a complaint.

A large influx of students arrived at isolation housing just as the outbreaks emerged in early September. University Housing quickly learned that its contracted cleaning service working nights was not enough, director Jeff Novak said in a statement. The division added daytime cleaning and it hasn’t received complaints since then.

Wanek doesn’t endorse the idea of students trying to infect themselves. She lost her sense of taste and smell for several weeks in addition to feeling ill. But she also said her time in isolation housing was among the most memorable because she didn’t have to worry about masks and social distancing when everyone was already infected.

"It felt like a normal college experience because we could socialize," she said.

The rest of Wanek’s semester was filled with everyday college life. She had roommate problems exacerbated by all of the time they spent together in close quarters. She joined a research lab that fits with her area of interest in dairy science. And she remains in close touch with people she met in isolation housing.

"One of the nights in the COVID dorms, we stayed up talking and sharing our life stories," she said. "If COVID wasn’t a thing, I wouldn’t have met this group of people. I know that COVID isn’t a blessing at all, but what it’s teaching us kind of is."


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