UW class closures over COVID-19 create new challenges for students

Campus officials say they will be constantly re-evaluating all decisions related to the disease

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with the World Health Organization, federal, state and local public health partners, and clinicians in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. (James Gathany/CDC Public Health Image Library)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with the World Health Organization, federal, state and local public health partners, and clinicians in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. (James Gathany/CDC Public Health Image Library)

As swift as the spread of COVID-19 has been worldwide, so too has been the domino effect of closures and cancellations to stifle the virus’ mobility. In Wisconsin, with at least eight positive cases, colleges across the state are canceling in-person classes.

But what does that really mean for students, some a long way from home, others dependent on campus jobs for income? Jim Spotts has a child enrolled at UW-Milwaukee, where spring break has been extended and classes are moving online. “What about kids that are paying premium rent to live near the school,” he asks, “or kids living in the dorm that now have to do online classes and don’t have Wi-Fi at home?” As a parent, Spotts wonders about kids who are struggling with their grades who may do even worse without contact with their instructors. “Are they going to charge them to take the class again?”

On March 9, a UW-Milwaukee employee was tested for the virus after falling ill. According to an email students received from UWM chancellor Mark Mone, the employee became ill after having contact with a person who had recently traveled  to a country hit by COVID-19. “The results will not be known until the end of the week,” reads the email. “The individual works in our UWM Foundation office, which is connected to the Cambridge Commons student housing facility on North Avenue on Milwaukee’s east-side.”

In the span of two days, several University of Wisconsin campuses announced that they will also move to online classes as a precaution. “This is a rapidly changing health issue,” Mone’s email stated, “and we will provide updates to our campus communities as quickly as possible when additional information becomes available.”

At least some of Spotts’ concerns, however, have been addressed by campus officials. “The residence halls are not closing,” Mone wrote on a page detailing UW-Milwaukee’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. “We will accommodate and care for students who do not have alternative housing and need to remain on campus.”

Students who need to stay in the halls will need to notify housing staff, who will then follow up with more details, “including information about housing fees,” Mone writes. Student employees are “not prohibited or discouraged from working at their UWM jobs,” but the wishes of those who don’t want to work will be respected.

Although in-person classes and campus gatherings involving more than 50 people will be canceled until April 10, things are constantly changing. “Due to the dynamic nature of the pandemic,” writes Mone, “we will be re-evaluating the timeline and will keep you informed on when in-person instruction will resume, with one week’s notice.” The new developments in efforts to contain COVID-19’s spread have caused some students to ask tough questions.

“Everything is changing by the hour honestly,” one UW-Milwaukee junior, who didn’t wish to be named, told Wisconsin Examiner. “Yesterday most of us thought they were overreacting to this. But today we are starting to worry. Kids are canceling their travel plans for spring break.” The student recalls being in class when campus officials sent out the first volley of emails. It became difficult to distinguish between what was going to happen, what might happen and what were mere rumors. “The higher-up staff are all saying ‘this is the right decision,’ but our professors and TAs are upset and think it’s unfair.”

UW-Madison is also moving classes online, and taking precautions against the viral spread. “It is critical that the University of Wisconsin-Madison prioritizes the physical and mental health, along with safety needs of its students during this uncertain time, particularly those who will be negatively impacted by these circumstances,” reads a statement from the Associated Students of Madison (ASM). “Your professors and teaching assistants are receiving support in transitioning classes to alternative formats. They should be accommodating to your needs.” The statement adds, “while students are encouraged to return home if possible, exceptions will be made.”

Tess Iding, legislative vice chair of the ASM, says that although student concerns over the closures may feel “overwhelming,” some understand the argument to halt in-person classes.

“Some do think it’s for the best to have this closure for a brief time,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “There are people with immune deficiency disorders, close elderly family members, and more that need to be taken care of. Though everyone is frustrated and anxious with the situation, myself included, the most important aspect that needs to be focused on is trying to maintain a happy and healthy community.”

Connor Myse, a graduate student at UW-Madison, understands why it’s a “smart” decision to cancel in-person classes. Particularly when it comes to possible legal fall out if someone gets severely sick on campus without the college doing anything.

“If someone gets it and dies on campus,” he told Wisconsin Examiner, “there could be a lawsuit especially if all these other schools are starting to cancel and all these other programs are canceling.” At the same time, however, Myse feels that, “the entire reaction by the nation and ultimately the world is hurting us more than helping us.” A lot of questions still remain even for Myse, who says he’d be affected less by the changes as a graduate student. “A lot of people still have questions, like the gym facilities. Are those going to stay open, yes or no?”

Myse also argues that since humans are a social species, there’s only so much that can be done. In Madison’s case, if the students don’t congregate at the dorms, they’ll probably congregate in other places for social interaction. “Lets say I’m a student, and I live off campus, and the way I’m making rent for the month is by working at the dining hall, or working in the gym, or something like that. And if they close that stuff do they have to pay you or not?”

In-person classes at Marquette University, a private religious college, are also suspended March 16-20, according to an email from university leadership. “We understand these decisions have campus-wide implications,” it reads, “many of them are inter-dependent. We have a dedicated team working through these complex issues to identify the best courses of action in the coming days and weeks.”

Like the UW-system campuses, Marquette is implementing restrictions to university-sponsored travel until further notice. ”The coming week will be a planning period for Marquette “faculty and staff are expected to work during this time,” the email reads, adding, “any employee who feels uncomfortable coming into work can talk with their supervisor about working from home.”

At the time of this writing, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee. The stakes are getting higher by the day, however. Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on Thursday, and 37 individuals who had been quarantined on a cruise ship are set to come back home. The National Guard has been activated to aid in the transport of these patients according to Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, who spoke at Evers’ news conference on Thursday.

Sect-designee Andrea Palm speaks at a news conference declaring a public health state of emergency due to COVID-19 3/12/20

Although testing capability for the virus is growing, Wisconsin officials warn that they are nearing their testing capacity. Eight cases have been confirmed in the Badger State, with one individual from Dane County having recovered. Positive cases have been detected in Fond du Lac, Waukesha, Dane and Pierce counties. According to a Department of Health Services (DHS) page monitoring the situation, 53 individuals have tested negative. Over 134,000 cases have been reported worldwide, with nearly 5,000 deaths. Over 68,000 patients have recovered after falling ill.

“As we see more cases, we remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent the spread of infection to others in the community,” said state health officer Jeanne Ayers. “These cases should serve to remind all of us about the importance of social distancing and maintaining good hygiene to prevent the spread of the disease.”

The UW System Emergency Operations Center will report campus-related updates on a web page. “The safety of our students, faculty, staff and communities remains our top priority,” the page states. “We will continue to update this website as information becomes available and provide direct communications from UW System Administration and local campuses to keep you informed of any new developments.”