University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore Sam Drees is not new to navigating his education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, his senior year at Marinette High School was cut short.

For the upcoming semester at UW-Madison, Drees sees both positives and negatives. Learning is a lot easier in person, in his opinion. Though classroom instruction is ideal, Drees said there are also stresses that come with in-person learning during the pandemic.

Drees is not the only student weighing the pros and cons of in-person instruction. As the highly contagious omicron variant continues to sweep the nation, individuals within the UW-Madison community have been asking administrators to tighten precautions and move classes online for the first two weeks of instruction.

In a Jan. 7 open letter to Blank, the Teaching Assistants Association, UW-Madison’s graduate student worker union, demanded the university pivot to online instruction for the first two weeks of spring semester. Other universities across the nation have taken up this approach due to Omicron — including UW-Milwaukee, where 55% of in-person classes moved online for the first week of classes.

After receiving no response from the university, graduate workers from the TAA, student government leaders and other activists marched up Bascom Hill the day before classes started, demanding to meet with UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. The group said they would not leave Bascom Hall until Blank agreed to hold classes online in light of soaring COVID-19 cases.

On the day classes started, the Associated Students of Madison, UW-Madison’s student government body, released a statement asking the university to adopt hybrid models for learning until the pandemic is over and called for stronger COVID-19 precautions at the university. 

It has been over a week since UW-Madison began in-person instruction, despite these concerns and high community transmission rates in Dane County.

“Because of the presence of highly effective vaccines, public health agencies in our county, state and nation are pivoting to providing individuals the tools they need to resume most daily activities,” UW-Madison said in an employee-wide message sent Jan. 18. “We will embrace that same approach — continuing proven strategies from our fall semester operations and providing new support and resources to employees and students to manage their personal risk.”

Tracking, managing, quarantining

A town hall meeting held virtually Jan. 21 outlined how the upcoming semester will look. Four expert panelists who have aided COVID-19 policies over the last two years answered questions selected from over 150 community submissions.

This semester, UW-Madison introduced take-home antigen tests into its COVID-19 response strategy and consolidated four PCR testing sites into one location at University Club — while keeping the PCR testing capacity the same at 5,000 tests a week. 

Ashley Cheung, a member of the UW BIPOC Coalition and ASM’s sustainability chair, said UW-Madison’s consolidation of four testing locations to one makes PCR testing less accessible to the campus community members who live far from campus, including graduate students and workers living in Eagle Heights and Madison’s west side.

The reason for this consolidation is staff shortages, according to Student Services Finance Committee Chair Maxwell Laubenstein who, along with ASM representatives, has check-ins with University Health Services leadership. 

In a Jan. 19 meeting with ASM and Laubenstein, Carol Griggs, who is an associate executive director at UHS, said they have seen increasing employee attrition rates in the past six to eight months. As a result, Griggs told ASM leadership they made critical decisions to condense operations in a way that would require fewer people who are healthcare workers running the sites, resulting in one PCR testing site for the semester.

Despite heavy recruitment efforts for testing site worker positions, Griggs said UHS has 13 staff members this semester. UHS chose University Club for the consolidation because it allowed a strong epidemiological environment, could be expanded to accommodate additional testing, is wheelchair accessible and allows pathways to reduce people passing others and transmitting the virus.

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Antigen testing

UW-Madison is following Wisconsin’s state guidelines for shaping their COVID-19 response, according to which positive COVID-19 tests reported outside of a clinical setting are not considered in the total case count on the COVID-19 Dashboard, UW-Madison spokesperson McGlone said in a statement to The Badger Herald. This means even though UW-Madison is providing rapid antigen tests, positive test results from antigen tests will not be reported on their COVID-19 Dashboard.

Unlike UW-Madison, Public Health Madison & Dane County is offering an online form to report at-home test results. This is so PHMDC can understand the level of infection and spread in Dane County, PHMDC spokesperson Morgan Finke said in an email statement to The Herald. 

Dr. Nasia Safdar, UW-Madison’s associate dean of clinical trials, said at the January town hall that case counts remain a valuable tool in combating Omicron.

“Case counts serve a valuable purpose because they can give people an idea,” Safdar said. “Especially with Omicron, it gave people an idea of how rapidly it’s spreading and how contagious it was.”

Griggs, who is also an operations director at UHS, said UW-Madison community members should report their positive antigen test results to PHMDC.

“This is due to the sheer volume of antigen testing and at-home usage,” Griggs said at the town hall. 

The switch to at-home testing provides results quickly, allowing individuals to immediately isolate upon a positive result, but at-home testing can result in inaccurate case numbers, according to University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy

According to PHMDC’s COVID-19 Dashboard, 107,689 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Dane County as of Jan. 30, and the level of community transmission continues to remain high.

The state’s cumulative total since the start of the pandemic is over 1.3 million, according to the Wisconsin DHS. But even these high numbers are likely lower than the real count, according to Safdar.

“Case counts are an underestimation of the real picture because, of course, people are doing testing at home and those often don’t get counted,” Safdar said, sharing ASM’s and TAA’s concerns about UW’s ability to accurately track the COVID-19 spread on campus. 

What’s new in vaccination?

UW has touted high campus vaccination rates as reason for moving forward with in-person instruction despite Omicron’s enduring presence across the country. According to their COVID-19 dashboard,  95% students and 96.3% employees are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 2.

While the TAA argued vaccines and boosters offer lower protection from Omicron than other variants, a third dose of mRNA vaccines is over 90% effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalization from Omicron according to the CDC. But UW-Madison has not released any numbers about how many campus community members have received their booster shots.

“No one is safe if we are not all safe,” TAA said in their letter. “Vaccines do not make your students, student workers, faculty, and staff members bulletproof; cloth masks are no longer effective with the most recent omicron variant; Dane County’s breakthrough case rate has been high for months now.”

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Griggs said UW-Madison quadrupled the number of available appointments for the first two weeks of spring. Though the university has increased the volume of vaccination appointments, Pfizer will be the only vaccine available. Moderna vaccinations can be found elsewhere in the Madison area, Griggs added.

“Where the evidence is pointing is that if you’re boosted, you will have the most protection against severe outcomes of COVID,” UW infectious disease expert Ajay Sethi said at the town hall. “Getting boosted is recommended.”

In a statement to The Badger Herald, McGlone said the university is encouraging those eligible to receive booster shots to schedule an appointment with University Health Services. UW-Madison has additionally expanded the number of booster shot appointments now through Feb. 4.

No plans to move online

Even as cases rise, the university believes by following their risk mitigation strategy, in-person classes will continue throughout the semester. 

“Instructors are going to face this coming semester situation where students are missing class, some circumstances where multiple students in a particular class are missing [and] circumstances where the instructor themselves tests positive or becomes ill,” Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Zumbrunnen said at the town hall. 

Professors are asked to be flexible throughout the semester if one or more students have to miss class. Zumbrunnen said instructors need to take students at their word. If they report a positive COVID-19 test or feel ill, then they should not be treated like someone who would miss a class for a different reason, according to Zumbrunnen.

But last semester revealed instances where UW does not always extend this flexibility to its faculty and employees who are hesitant to teach in-person. When asked about the possibility of switching to remote learning, Zumbrunnen said there are currently no plans of making a transition.

“There’s no one best way to deal with these circumstances,” Zumbrunnen said. “So that’s where we pull together and put our heads together and figure out the best path forward.”

Some have said it is time to scale back precautions and return to pre-pandemic times, especially as effective antiviral pills and booster shots become more readily available. In addition, throughout the pandemic, there has been an enormous spike in Zoom fatigue, mental health concerns and burnout as universities switched to holding most classes online. At UW-Madison, these concerns were exacerbated last year when the university canceled spring break and extended winter break by a week to compensate.

Like Drees, some at UW-Madison feel the first two weeks of class set the tone for the rest of the semester, and the in-person classroom environment cannot be replicated over Zoom. 

Though TAA member Miranda Alksnis feels it is important to prioritize mental health, she believes the consequences of an in-person reopening tip the scales against the people who are disabled and immunocompromised. 

“I don’t disagree with any of those points,” Alksnis said. “I just don’t think anyone should die for those goals.”

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Campus (and) community

TAA and ASM member Jack Phillips said a goal of online classes would be to space out waves of infections resulting from the return to campus — including those who party as the semester starts and others cramming into tightly packed lecture halls and class spaces.

Phillips said they and the TAA believe in-person instruction at the start of the semester will strain healthcare systems more than it would have otherwise. 

“The point of doing an online start is that we can space out the wave of infections that we’re going to get when we see people coming back to Madison and partying and going to bars, and the infections that we’re going to get from people going to in-person classes and being in tightly packed spaces for hours on end,” Phillips said.

A study by the CDC revealed counties in which higher-education institutions opened with in-person classes experienced a 56% increase in COVID-19 cases than those with online classes in the beginning of the semester during fall 2020. While this study did not include data from UW-Madison — which had a largely online semester in fall 2020 — it shows a general trend of accelerating cases in counties that house university campuses, particularly those that start the semester with in-person classes.

During the 14-day period UW-Madison resumed in-person classes last fall, 1 in 5 Dane County cases were affiliated with the UW-Madison — with almost one-third comprising all of Dane County’s breakthrough cases, according to PHMDC. Compared to the Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 time period, there was a sharp increase of 206% in positive cases in the 18 to 22 age group during Sept. 6 to Sept. 19, 2021. 

“We [UW-Madison] don’t operate in a bubble here,” Matt Mayrl, who serves as the chief of staff at the UW-Madison’s chancellor’s office, said at the TAA sit-in. “At this point in the pandemic, many normal activities are occurring throughout society.”

According to the TAA’s letter, UW-Madison must prioritize controlling COVID-19 transmission levels — a task that the TAA said Dane County cannot achieve without the complete participation from the UW-Madison campus community.

“We believe that schools should remain open but to do so safely and with lower risk of disruption means layering mitigation strategies to reduce the risk of transmission of illness in the school and classroom setting,” Finke said when asked if PHMDC recommends or supports UW-Madison starting the semester with in-person instruction.

Finke did not specify if the best path forward for UW would be shift to online classes but said some strategies to reduce COVID-19 transmission in classroom settings include wearing a well-fitted mask, getting vaccinated, staying home and getting tested if sick, following the latest quarantine and isolation guidance while practicing good hygiene and handwashing habits.

Despite constituting only 8% of total tests conducted, the 18 to 22 age group forms the second-highest percentage of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Dane County, as of Jan. 30. Almost half of all cases are from Madison.

Editor’s Note: This story was edited Feb. 10 at 3:09 p.m. to remove a source’s flawed implication about quarantining spaces in residence halls.