UW leader pledges return to in-person learning this spring

A top official said Monday that University of Wisconsin System students will be allowed to return to campus for the spring semester and take more in-person courses, hoping that more robust COVID-19 testing will help stave off the types of outbreaks that forced the system to turn to online-only instruction a few weeks into the fall semester.

Andrew Petersen, the president of the Board of Regents, said he expects students to be able to return to their schools and live in residence halls safely. The system plans to test students living in dorms for the disease at least once a week. Students living off-campus and faculty and staff will be tested at least once every two weeks. UW-Madison, the system's flagship school, will test all students twice a week.

Regents want to see more in-person classes than schools offered in the fall, saying such instruction is far preferable to online learning or a hybrid model, he said. Chancellors will work with faculty to determine how best to implement in-person instruction, he said.

"Every barometer and metric that we measure right now suggests we'll be back in January," Petersen said. "It's not going to be certainly 100% (in-person instruction), but the effort is to have significantly more than we had last semester."

UW schools shut down in March as the virus began to spread in the state., sending students home to finish the semester online. Faced with dwindling revenue, system leaders decided to resume in-person instruction in the fall semester.

Students living in dorms were tested every other week and there was no requirement for students living off-campus to get tested at all. Major outbreaks erupted almost immediately when students returned to campus. COVID-19 was so rampant at UW-Madison, the state's flagship university, that the school temporarily moved all its classes back online and locked down thousands of students in two of its largest dorms for two weeks. Dane County officials blasted Chancellor Rebecca Blank for driving up the county's infection numbers. Blank blamed the county for not enforcing capacity limits on bars and policing off-campus parties.

The number of positive tests on campuses has dropped dramatically since then. As of Thursday, the the seven-day positivity rate for the system's regional campuses ranged from 4% at UW-La Crosse to 1% at its five other campuses, including Platteville, Parkside, Madison, Green Bay and Eau Claire.

Petersen said that since the start of the pandemic, the system will have administered more than 500,000 tests by the end of December for students, faculty and community members. He added that he hopes system campuses can become regional vaccine distribution hubs this spring.

Petersen's remarks come as the system hopes to persuade Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislators to give system employees a 4.5% pay raise in the next two-year state budget. That could be a tall order because the state faces a projected $373 million deficit and Republican legislators have traditionally been wary of giving such raises.

Petersen said the system's efforts to control COVID-19 justify the raises.

"Students wanted to be back in person. We delivered on that. Students wanted to be safe. We had to deal with some uncertainties along the way but we delivered on that. Students wanted to make sure they got access to testing. We delivered on that. We delivered on community testing," Petersen said. "That's what we're going to articulate with the Legislature this spring."