UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall (Phil Roeder | Flickr)
After one week of classes and before the long — and typically boozy — Labor Day weekend, the University of Wisconsin-Madison had already mandated that 420 fraternity and sorority members from nine organizations enter quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
After the long weekend, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank restricted all student movement. Students will only be able to attend academic activities, work, exercise, buy food and attend religious gatherings.
“Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community,” Blank said in a statement. “We’ve reached the point where we need to quickly flatten the curve of infection, or we will lose the opportunity to have campus open to students this semester, which we know many students truly want. While some increase was expected as testing expanded and students returned to campus, the growing number of infected individuals suggests the virus is starting to spread more rapidly.”
The directive from Blank went into at 5 p.m. on Monday and will continue until Sept. 21.
Before Blank announced the new limitations, some UW-Madison students, while happy to be back with friends and accepting personal responsibility to protect other students from infection, said they felt students and the administration had a lax attitude about the virus — and have been setting up students to take the blame when cases spike.
“Students, this is up to you,” UW System president Tommy Thompson said at a virtual event last month. “You can live in mom and dad’s basement or you can stay in Madison, Milwaukee or Platteville, it’s up to you.”
When asked about Thompson’s statement putting the onus almost entirely on students, senior Sarah Benjamin called it “offensive.”
On the university’s dashboard for testing data, students are threatened with suspension for not following the rules.
“For individuals who have intentionally behaved in ways that risk the health of our community, the university is pursuing disciplinary actions that could result in discipline up to and including the revocation of housing contracts and emergency suspension,” it states.
But it’s the administration that decided to allow more than 40,000 students to come to campus, including underclassmen who live in residence halls. According to a university COVID-19 dashboard, 896 students and employees had tested positive for the virus as of Sept. 7.
And students aren’t just sitting idly by. On Sept. 4, the university’s student government released a statement calling for a “moral restart.” The statement from the Associated Students of Madison asks administrators to move all classes online, reduce the amount of students in residence halls and require a negative COVID-19 test before attending a social gathering.
ASM also called for improvement to employment conditions for student workers and university employees, including a $15 minimum wage and the approval of labor contracts.
“I’m intrigued by the fact they allowed freshmen to come back in the first place because I think that does put a lot of the blame on students,” says senior journalism major Kyla Rosenberg.
On Friday afternoon, heading into the long weekend with the weather expected to be perfect for one of college students’ favorite pastimes — outdoor drinking — campus was abuzz. One house on Langdon Street had several cases of Natural Light stacked in front of the door.
Rosenberg and Benjamin say they’ve joked about a drinking game on campus poking fun at the lack of compliance with some COVID-19 restrictions — “take a shot every time you see a frat boy in a mask.”
“I think their expectations are unrealistic,” Benjamin says. “You’re not going to bring back 40,000 kids and say, ‘Oh but please don’t drink and don’t party. The bars are open, but don’t go.’ It’s just not going to happen.”
The two say the lines at bars have been shorter than normal — though the patio at State Street Brats was full on Friday afternoon — but what students who are breaking the rules will mostly do is attend apartment parties.
“You don’t have to be subtle because officials don’t really care,” Benjamin says.
With parties still going on and some students going to the bars, Rosenberg says she thinks at some point freshmen will be forced to leave while the upperclassmen in off-campus housing will be able to stay in Madison.
“We all assume they’re going to kick the freshmen off of campus and we’re all just going to stay,” she says. “I think that definitely puts it onto the students that, ‘You’re the problem; you have to leave.’ But, it’s like, why did they come back in the first place?”
Since universities across the country have begun welcoming students back, campuses have seen spikes of the virus. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a fellow Big Ten school, was widely seen as having one of the best testing strategies in the country when it announced mandated twice-a-week testing for all students.
But then 1,000 students tested positive for the virus and the university was forced to severely limit student movement.
“The irresponsible, and I might add, dangerous actions of a small number of our students has created the very real possibility of ending an in-person semester for all of us here at Illinois,” University Chancellor Robert Jones said.
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UW-Madison isn’t mandating testing, much less twice per week, but Rosenberg and Benjamin say testing has been accessible on campus. A group of their friends got tested after one of them thought a hangover was COVID-19 symptoms, they said.
University officials say that the focus should be on the majority of students who are following the rules.
“Chancellor Blank and other university leaders have consistently pointed out how many students are doing the right thing – wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distance and avoiding parties/large gatherings – and thanked them for stepping up and demonstrating responsibility,” university spokesperson Meredith McGlone said. “They’ve also been clear that it will take all of us working together to maintain a mix of in-person and virtual learning this year.”
McGlone also said it was clear students wanted to be back in Madison — something Benjamin and Rosenberg both echoed — despite the risks and restrictions.
But some students, like senior Greg Leftakes, say the school hasn’t been clear enough on what’s expected of students. The university isn’t mandating testing and, he says, his friends weren’t aware of the rules as they came back to school.
“We just felt like it was a little loosey-goosey,” he says.
It’s not that students don’t realize these are difficult decisions for administrators to make, but that it’s maybe too easy to blame student activity when people inevitably get infected.
“I do feel for the university, I think they’ve done a good job — you can reserve spots at the library, free testing for students — but I don’t know if it’s as simple as they’re trying their best,” senior Alex Elevathingal says. “I don’t think you’re a terrible person if you’re going out, try to be safe, we’ll see how it goes.”
But with hundreds of Greek life members quarantined and the number of cases rapidly increasing, students feel how precarious this situation is, even though officials continue to say they believe the restrictions will work as long as students comply.
“President Thompson and the chancellors have consistently sent the message that we’re all in this together,” UW System spokesperson Mark Pitsch said. “We know students are counting on us, which is why we have put in place aggressive testing protocols and plans to address and contain outbreaks. It’s why we imposed a mask-wearing mandate, and why we’re urging students to also wash their hands frequently and to follow physical distancing.”
“Additionally, we have worked with taverns and restaurants to do their part,” he continued. “And while students are counting on us, we are also counting on them. We need students to follow health guidelines. Together, we have a shared responsibility.”
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