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UW-Eau Claire Instructors Call For Online Classes After Thanksgiving

Group Says Doing So Would Prevent Spikes In COVID-19 Infections Caused By Travel As Cases Surge Around Wisconsin

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UW-Eau Claire sign.
File photo. Carolyn Langon via Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

A group of instructors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are calling for the campus to move classes online after Thanksgiving to limit the spread of COVID-19.

They’re also calling the university’s testing data into question, noting that the campus is reporting a 4 percent positive rate while Eau Claire County has reported that 38 percent of all positives during the pandemic have come from people between 18 and 24 years old.

The group of 16 UW-Eau Claire math professors and academic staff sent a letter to Chancellor Jim Schmidt asking him to move all classes online after the Thanksgiving break in order to prevent a potential second surge of COVID-19 cases this semester.

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“To be blunt: our students live in fear,” said the letter. “Our faculty and staff, our communities and families, all live in fear. This fear is fueled in part by uncertainty.”

Silviana Amethyst, an assistant professor of mathematics at UW-Eau Claire, said that the uncertainty is about whether the current surge of COVID-19 cases across the county and state will result in another sudden shift to online classes, similar to what the campus experienced in March. That was when all UW System campuses moved classes online, just weeks after Gov. Tony Evers limited indoor gatherings to 10 people or fewer following the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.

The letter noted that UW-Madison, UW-Superior, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Platteville and UW-Whitewater have plans to move classes and final exams online after Thanksgiving. The other eight UW campuses plan to resume some form of in-person learning when students return.

“The reason I wrote the letter is because I think we should travel as little as possible over Thanksgiving break,” Amethyst said, “Because it is the travel to and from infected locations that will vector the disease and act to exacerbate the pandemic in our state.”

Amethyst said making a decision now regarding the final weeks of the semester would give instructors and students time to plan for the transition.

Peter Hart-Brinson, UW-Eau Claire associate professor of sociology and communications, is president of the campus chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. He said the organization believes that education and health don’t need to be sacrificed for one another.

“By moving the final three weeks of the fall semester online, we can eliminate unnecessary travel to and from COVID hot spots without sacrificing educational quality,” said Hart-Brinson. “Exceptions should be granted for classes where in-person instruction is pedagogically necessary, but a policy that tacitly encourages students to engage in behavior that increases the spread of COVID between campus and students’ home communities is irrational and dangerous.”

UW-Eau Claire, like other UW campuses, saw significant spikes in the number of students testing positive for COVID-19 soon after students returned for the start of the fall semester. According to the campus’s COVID-19 dashboard, the percentage of students testing positive peaked above 10 percent.

According to Eau Claire County data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, there were 20 positive tests on Aug. 26 when students were starting to move back for the fall semester. Five days after classes started on Sept. 2, the number of daily COVID-19 positive tests in the county more than tripled.

The number of positive cases reported by UW-Eau Claire has varied in the weeks since the start of the semester, though they’ve remained below 10 percent. But Amethyst said the campus’ COVID-19 dashboard testing data isn’t comprehensive since the university only offers regular testing to the 4,000 or so students living in campus dorms, not for those living off campus.

“The data omits 6,000 of our students,” said Amethyst. “And I think that’s deeply problematic.”

In response to the math department staff letter, Rodd Freitagg, UW-Eau Claire interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, emailed the group, saying that Schmidt will be “communicating to the campus community next week after meetings with UW System.”

Freitagg didn’t say whether the chancellor and UW System administrators would discuss potentially moving classes online after Thanksgiving.

Freitagg also wrote in the email that the campus has had “no positive cases as a result of contact in the classroom.” He said that was due to efforts by staff and students.

“The results are gratifying. Last week only 33 of the 469 cases in Eau Claire were connected to our university. That is a huge, positive accomplishment,” he wrote.

When asked how the university knows none of the student body, which averages around 11,000 people, contracted the virus in classroom spaces, a UW-Eau Claire spokesperson said campus contact tracers found no evidence of in-class spread.

Leiska Giese, Eau Claire City County Health Department director said disease investigators are able to connect positive cases to the university through contact tracing. She said her department gives UW-Eau Claire a weekly report with that data.

Geise said everyone should be concerned about a general spread of COVID-19 throughout the county. According to the Eau Claire County COVID-19 dashboard, there was a new daily record of 178 positive cases confirmed on Oct. 26.

Minnesota Public Radio reporter Catharine Richert reported Friday that the Mayo Clinic Health System — which has locations in Eau Claire and across northwestern Wisconsin — said its doctors had described the current situation in the region as “New York City-like.”

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