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UW System Working To Test All Students, Faculty, Staff For COVID-19

UW System President Ray Cross Says Goal Is To Hold In-Person Classes This Fall

University students pack their rooms to leave due to COVID-19
Princeton University students Halima Matthews, 20, left, and best friend Deztynee Rivera, 20, right, pack their rooms to leave after the institution shutdown campus with plans to continue instruction online due to COVID-19, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Princeton, N.J. Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross says campuses will provide extensive COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff in hopes that campuses can resume in-person classes this fall.

Cross told the UW Board of Regents on Thursday, that UW System Administration is working on a five-point plan to ensure employees and students are comfortable returning to campus during the fall semester. The first point is to provide system-wide testing for the new coronavirus and contact tracing for those who may become infected.

“That includes faculty, staff and students,” said Cross. “And that is a monumental task. And we have been working with a variety of folks from the Medical College of Wisconsin, from Exact Sciences, from across the nation to identify the best way and the most economical way to provide ubiquitous testing.”

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The second point UW System is working on is creating spaces to isolate those who test positive for the disease, Cross said.

“Should a student or a faculty member or a staff member be diagnosed as positive, can we isolate them and facilities appropriately and provide health care as well as food and other services they might need, while there?” Cross said. “Isolation also includes the need to quarantine those that have been exposed, but may not be showing positive signs.”

As outbreaks of COVID-19 began to grow in Wisconsin in March, all UW System campuses moved classes online and told students to stay home, if possible, through the spring semester. Online classes were then extended through the summer semester. During Thursday’s meeting, UW System Vice President of Finance Sean Nelson said estimates show campuses will lose $212 million in revenues as a result.

Every campus within the system has announced employee furloughs and other cost-saving measures to address the losses. Nelson said those actions are expected to save around $65 million. UW Campuses also received around $48 million in federal stimulus aid. Still, Nelson said UW System will be left with more than $98 million in losses through the summer semester.

Cross said it’s imperative that faculty, staff and students feel safe and comfortable enough to return to campuses.

“We will be back in session in the fall,” said Cross. “What it looks like and how we deliver that will be a combination. It won’t be normal. We’ll be different. But to the extent possible, we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told regents that even if in-person classes are held, many changes will have to be made to avoid large gatherings of students.

“We believe that even if everyone’s back on campus, it’s going to be hard for us to meet in classes of 250 to 300 students,” said Blank. “So, we’ve got to do things working with the departments and the faculty to teach those classes to convert at least the large lectures.”

Even if classes are kept online, Blank said, she pushed back against what she called an assumption that if students are not on campus, they will stay in their homes.

“Nobody’s going to behave that way, particularly between the ages of 18 and 22, for a very extended period of time,” said Blank. “So the question is really, what risks do they run by coming to campus relative to the risks that they run by staying at home? And what we need to do is create an environment whereby our risks are at least comparable. I think in some cases lower than in terms of the exposure of the rest of the family for those families and those students if they’re here on campus.”