With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing across Wisconsin, Dane County and the University of Wisconsin leadership remain divided on how to best manage the spread of the pandemic.

In June, UW announced the Smart Restart plan to reopen in autumn. Now, almost three weeks into the fall semester, over 2,000 students have contracted COVID-19.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi urged UW to send students living in residence halls home and switch to completely online instruction.

“[UW] went virtual in the spring, and no one wants to do this, but we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Parisi said. “And I think it’s ultimately the best thing for the students and for the rest of the community.”

Public Health Madison and Dane County released Forward Dane in May to safely reopen Dane County during the pandemic. The following month, Dane County entered phase two of the plan, which allowed post-secondary education institutions to operate as usual, no longer restricting universities to distance learning as they were in phase one.

The day before campus move-in began, however, select members of the Dane County Board, Madison City Council and Madison School Board signed a letter addressed to UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank and PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich. The letter argued an outbreak on campus would be inevitable, advising residence halls should be limited to those who don’t have alternative housing and in-person instruction be moved online.

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On the cusp of UW’s opening, Blank wrote in a blog, “Our plan was crafted with the participation and input from senior leaders in Schools and Colleges, shared governance leaders and many faculty and staff who participated in different task forces. We continue to hold live events to answer questions and respond to feedback.”

UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone said plans were updated and informed by science and public health information, including mandatory face coverings, physical distancing, and isolation and quarantine rooms.

Still, UW and PHMDC recognized UW’s opening would create a wide impact on its local community. 

PHMDC Communications Director Sarah Mattes said everyone must follow COVID-19 guidelines to prevent its spread and keep the pandemic under control.

“UW-Madison is a part of [Dane County’s] community, and decisions made for campus will affect the rest of our community,” Mattes said.

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Dane County experienced a record one-day increase Sept. 8 in the number of COVID-19 cases. Sept. 10, PHMDC verified 65% of those cases were UW students and staff. Average COVID-19 cases per day in Dane County more than doubled from Sept. 4 to Sept. 11, and Wisconsin set a new daily record for cases Sept. 26, though this cannot be directly attributed to UW.

The rapid increase in UW’s COVID-19 cases heavily impacted the city of Madison and Dane County. Business owners are concerned the cases will discourage customers from going downtown.

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UW’s surge in cases affected Madison hospitals as well. Visitor restrictions went into effect Tuesday in an attempt to decrease spread of the virus.

“That’s some real-life stuff that impacts real people,” Parisi said. “If you can’t have people to come visit you, or have visitation that is severely limited, that makes being in the hospital and having loved ones in the hospital that much more difficult … and what we’re trying hard to prevent with our guidelines in the first place is increases in people going to the hospital.”

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About 88% of UW students who had COVID-19 were symptomatic.

“It’s placed a burden on our ability to do contact tracing, and in a timely fashion, [to] be able to identify places and people where someone may have come in contact or may have been exposed so it not only impacts the health in the community, but it’s also impacting our health infrastructure,” Parisi said.

Blank placed Sellery and Witte Residence Halls under a two-week quarantine and shifted all instruction online until Sept. 25.

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Parisi said though the two-week quarantine is a step in the right direction, it’s not enough.

“It’s kind of like playing whack-a-mole,” Parisi said, “You try to suppress [COVID-19] in one place, and it’s going to pop up in another because UW’s not doing it campus-wide.”

Parisi said Dane County saw instances of students who decided to move out of Witte into an apartment and then go visit their friends in other student housing.

Parisi continues to urge the system to remain all virtual, to quarantine all of the residence halls, to make sure the residents test negative and then allow their parents to come pick them up and take them home. Parisi said he talked to UW System President Tommy Thompson about moving all instruction online.

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At a faculty senate meeting Sept. 14, UW voted to cancel 2021 Spring Break in an effort to limit student travel and exposure to coronavirus.

At a news conference, Blank said UW will not send students back home because Madison is their home.

“These students are not going home, so this is not an issue that’s going to resolve itself by simply telling all students at the University to go home,” Blank said. “The more interactions we have with them, the more we can work with them, I think in many ways, the better off we are. That’s why we made the choices we made.”