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Some private colleges, universities delaying start of spring semester classes, requiring vaccinations amid COVID-19 surge

Administrators hoping extra time, vaccine mandates, boosters will keep spring classes from moving online

People stand in a lobby near bins full of bedding and other items.
Student Piper Hodne, right, moves into a residence hall with her family Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, at UW-Eau Claire. Angela Major/WPR

Some private colleges and universities in Wisconsin are delaying the start of spring semester classes, requiring negative COVID-19 tests or vaccinations and boosters for students and employees amid a rapid surge of new COVID-19 infections. At the same time, the University of Wisconsin System says students “will return on-time and as normal” for classes starting this month.

As the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reports daily record-breaking numbers of new cases of COVID-19, colleges and universities across the state are discussing what, if any, changes might be needed before thousands of students converge on campus.

On Wednesday, Edgewood College announced it was delaying the start of the spring 2022 semester for in-person undergraduate courses by one week to Jan. 24.

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Edgewood Vice President for Student Development Heather Harbach said administrators are thinking of the delay as a way to implement a “community-wide quarantine.” She said students have been traveling, spending time with loved ones who may or may not have been carrying the virus.

“And so, we thought by giving a notice right now to the students, that gives them a couple of weeks to really buckle down, to limit their exposure to others, really focus on managing their symptoms or watching for symptoms,” said Harbach. “And in some ways, maybe we can have them manage a wave, if it were to happen, in a place where they were away from campus or in a place where they could comfortably quarantine and then get back into the semester with a wave, maybe on a downward slope.”

On Jan. 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended timeframes for isolating after COVID-19 exposures or infections. People who have tested positive should isolate themselves from others for five days if they’re asymptomatic or symptoms are resolving, said the agency.

Edgewood College doesn’t mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, but Harbach said they’re strongly recommended and students must report their vaccination status. She said the student body had an 86 percent vaccination rate during the fall semester. Students are required to wear face masks in classrooms.

Wisconsin’s largest private college, Marquette University, also issued an announcement Wednesday stating the school would delay the start of spring undergraduate, graduate and law school classes by a week with a new start date of Jan. 24.

“Additional information on how the class time of these four days will be made up will be shared in the coming days,” said the campus statement. “There are no plans to cancel Spring Break or Easter Break.”

Marquette is also requiring students to show proof that they’ve received vaccination booster shots by Feb. 1. Neither vaccinations nor boosters are required for university employees. An indoor face mask requirement has also been extended on campus.

Matt Rentmeester is the vice president of admissions and marketing at Bellin College in Green Bay. He said the campus will start requiring vaccinations for all students, faculty and staff before the start of the spring semester on Jan. 17. Rentmeester said face masks will continue to be required indoors until further notice.

Rentmeester said the college is lucky that the semester starts later in the month because administrators will have more time to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in the community and on campus.

“We’re seeing it already, acutely, with some of our staff and faculty that are out with positive tests, and we’re hoping our students come back healthy,” said Rentmeester. “But the reality of it is, we already know the impact might be a little bit deeper than it was navigating the fall semester, which we did relatively successfully.”

There are no plans to move classes online at Bellin College, he said.

“It’s very difficult to teach health care education remotely,” said Rentmeester. “You need to be bedside, you need to work in the labs and eventually you need to get on to your clinicals at the hospitals who desperately need our graduates.”

Beloit College will continue its vaccination mandate that went into effect before the start of the fall 2021 semester. The college is also requiring a negative COVID-19 test before students or employees return to campus Jan. 24.

Lawrence University announced on Dec. 23 that “remote curricular and co-curricular activities” during the winter term will be extended through the second week of classes, which starts Jan. 10. Student move-in to residence halls was delayed to Jan. 9 and all employees other than those in direct student support roles are being asked to work remotely.

Ripon College interim President Andrea Young told the campus on Wednesday it will be requiring students and employees to provide a negative COVID-19 test before returning on campus for the spring semester starting Jan. 18. Also, Young said, there will be a “limited mixing phase” from Jan. 16 to Jan. 20 in which events other than in-person classes and athletics practices or games will be postponed or held virtually.

St. Norbert College in De Pere will start classes as planned on Jan. 24, but students and employees must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before coming to campus.

The UW System has announced no significant changes for the spring semester at its 13 universities or their branch campuses. A thread of tweets on Jan. 4 said, “Due to our successful mitigation measures, UW System students will return on-time and as normal to campuses and classrooms.”

The thread states that UW System was “the first to provide mass scale testing for our students and staff” and touted a scholarship lottery to encourage student bodies at campuses to reach at least a 70 percent vaccination rate. All UW campuses except UW-Platteville reached or exceeded the 70 percent threshold.

For a limited time during the close of the fall 2021 semester, it appeared some UW System campuses were heading toward requiring vaccinations for employees in order to comply with an executive order issued by President Joe Biden.

Ultimately, UW-Madison was the only state school to announce a mandate for all employees, including student employees. That has been paused due to a federal court action blocking Biden’s executive order. Still, UW-Madison’s COVID-19 dashboard shows nearly 96 percent of employees have been vaccinated.

In recent days, the campus’s dashboard has also shown a notable increase in the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. Results from Jan. 4 show 21.5 percent of tests came back positive.

A UW-Madison spokesperson said there are no changes to campus operations at this time and that administrators are monitoring the current surge of cases across Wisconsin closely while consulting with public health experts.