Many students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have expressed serious concerns about their safety and health after the university announced that it begins fall classes on September 2nd, around ten days from now, and offer in-person instruction in many courses until Thanksgiving recess.
Madison365 talked to some of the students who are returning to campus to learn their perspective on how they feel about the ‘Smart Restart’ plan. They were randomly chosen students and have suggested that UW-Madison should reconsider its reopening plan by either making the campus, dorms and classrooms safer for students and workers, or moving classes entirely online.
PhD student Matt Minich said reopening school for in-person classes is not the safest decision from a public health standpoint.
“So much of the coursework is going online, the educational experience is still going to be disrupted. But obviously the safest decision would be to just hold the entire semester online and let students stay home,” he said.
Undergrad student Katie Pocian said she is concerned about going back to a large city with more active cases of COVID-19. However, she said she liked that she had the choice to return to Madison as many courses have online and in-person options, but she said more needs to be done to ensure the safety and well-being of people here.
“I will be living with four other friends in a three-bedroom apartment. I will follow public health guidelines for social distancing and wear a mask, but if my roommates do not take the same precautions, then I could just easily contract the virus,” she said.
She said another concern is the plan that after Thanksgiving, all classes will switch to remote learning. “While this decision may decrease the number of students who will bring COVID-19 back to Madison from their hometown. However, this plan does nothing to protect the hometowns of students from picking up the virus from our crowded college town,” she said.
She suggested that UW-Madison should have followed other universities in starting classes two weeks early and finishing the fall semester before Thanksgiving Break.
After Thanksgiving, UW–Madison will switch to a virtual format for all courses for the final nine days of instruction plus exams. This decision is based on the likelihood that students leaving and returning to Madison over the Thanksgiving recess would increase the risk for COVID-19 infections on campus.
“The last two weeks of the semester could have still been online, to allow students to quarantine before returning to their hometowns,” she said.
Shouvik Chatterjee said I don’t entirely feel safe going back to school, since the curve hasn’t flattened yet, and cases are on the rise. “I feel like the best option is just go fully online, even more so since ICE restrictions have backed down from negativity affecting international students. I’m not entirely comfortable with the smart reopening plan,” said Chatterjee.
A graduate student and teaching assistant, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the smart restart is not a smart decision.
“A professor I’m working with is pretty sure the classes will go online after one or two weeks,” he said.
The UW-Madison Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), the union representing teaching assistance, have encouraged students to reach out to the administration and pressure them to follow the public health guidelines rather than holding in-person classes and labs. They organized several events to pressure university administration. Miranda Alknis, co-chair of the TAA Stewards’ Council, said the longer UW-Madison waits to move all learning online, the more students, workers, and community members will contract COVID-19. While Wisconsin cases are surging, students are already going to bars and reuniting with their friends, she said.
“The dense living situation of on-campus residence does not comply with county guidelines for social distancing, and will only worsen the community spread among undergraduates,” she said.
She said other schools with more extensive testing plans are being forced online right now: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is moving online after a single week of in-person classes led to an explosion of cases. Like Alknis, many other students said the UW-Madison must go online immediately because it will be forced online anyway: the sooner administration stops pretending things are normal, the more lives they will save, TAA members said.
According to a recent survey conducted by United Faculty and Academic Staff and the TAA, more than 86 percent of workers across the UW-Madison campus said they were “extremely uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” with fall plans.
The TAA and students demanded that all courses move online until Public Health Madison & Dane County reports zero new cases for 14 consecutive days. Currently, Dane County is reporting 45 new cases per day on average.
According to TAA, in response to inaction from university administrators, students and workers across the U.S. have successfully used email campaigns to win on their demands. Following the lead of allies across higher education the TAA stated it is asking as many community members as possible to reach out to UW–Madison administrators and local elected officials to directly share questions and concerns about the upcoming fall semester.