There is a wonderful vitality to our city each September as UW-Madison kicks off classes. The downtown is filled with youthful energy, football game Saturday enthuses locals, and notables arrive to give lectures. And in a presidential election season, the campus takes on a feeling that is palpable. No one wishes for any of that to change as the university is a powerful and uplifting force in our midst.
But this year with the pandemic running wild nothing can be the same. Medical advice and scientific data underscore what we must do to stem the spread of further infections, and what happens when those precautions are not observed. Strive as many do to move forward with life as they knew it, reality pushes back harder.
Monday the news made headlines around the nation that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill converted to remote learning after reporting 135 new coronavirus cases within a week of starting classes for the fall semester. The spirited university experience in North Carolina is not any different than that which will take place in Madison. Sadly the outcome regarding the cases of COVID-19 will not be any different, either.
In the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal two-paragraphs jumped off the page about what many fear will unfold locally.
Excitement about a new school year filled the humidity-laced August air on Friday, but something else floated through Langdon and Lathrop and other off-campus streets where the majority of UW-Madison’s student body lives: Anxiety. Resignation. Little faith that the semester will carry out through Thanksgiving in the way university administrators intend.
“I give it maybe three weeks” before uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 forces all classes online, incoming junior Rebecca Mills said. “From what I’ve seen, people are prioritizing partying over keeping everyone safe.”
The campus and the city mix and blend and back again so to have infections spread on campus will ensure ramped up cases for the larger community. That is why Madison residents have a reason for concern and need to weigh into this discussion about in-person classes this fall at the UW.
This weekend a powerful column was published in the Journal by Timothy Wu from the perspective of the UW faculty.
In doing so, UW-Madison is disregarding concerns raised by faculty, staff and students about the risks of reopening. It is forcing instructors back into the classroom against their will and at significant risk to their health. And it is ignoring a growing body of evidence that even aggressive testing and tracing efforts may not be sufficient to contain a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.
The university’s claim that it can reopen safely is based on a plan to test students living in residence halls every two weeks. Yet new research suggests that it may be necessary to test students every two days in order to control the spread of COVID-19. Universities such as Harvard and Yale are indeed planning to test students multiple times a week, but they have much smaller student bodies and are inviting only a fraction of their students back to campus. Given our much larger student population, it seems unlikely that UW-Madison will be able to test students with the necessary frequency.
No one wanted 2020 to play out in the fashion we have witnessed. With certainty, no one wants to see even more dire and frustrating headlines due to the rampaging virus. But we can not pretend the virus will lurk into a corner and allow us to continue with the way we once did things. College life is rife with the conditions that will allow for the continuance of this virus. Therefore prudence and experiences from other places in the nation must come to bear upon the UW-Madison.
It is not in the interest of the students, professors, staff, or city to allow for in-person instruction this fall at the university. There needs to be an announcement made that the larger needs of the many will prevail and that online instruction will take place this fall.