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UWRF officials hope to keep campus open despite COVID-19 spread

Falcon News Service

September 16, 2020

During a recent evening at dinner time, students socially distance outside University Center on the UW-River Falls campus. (Photo by Theodore Tollefson)
During a recent evening at dinner time, students socially distance outside University Center on the UW-River Falls campus. (Photo by Theodore Tollefson)

One of the big questions for colleges and universities across America this semester is “How long will it be before the campus has to shut down again?” University of Wisconsin-River Falls officials have developed a strategy to help prevent further spread of COVID-19 as thousands of students congregate once again in the community.

However, university officials concede that one scenario could be sending students home early, just like last semester at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.

“The reason why everyone was sent home last spring was because of Governor (Tony) Evers’ shelter-at-home order for the state,” UWRF Provost David Travis said via an online video interview. “We feel the campus can manage to continue as an open campus with a substantial number of COVID-19 cases this year. We have not identified a number of cases that we feel would be the tipping point to send everyone home. We don’t have a number partly because it really depends on the exposure of those cases to other people. So if we get to a point where we run out of quarantine space, then we would have to consider sending people home.”

UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson has said he expects 12 of the 13 four-year universities will continue to operate with students still residing on campus.

Following UW-Madison’s decision to move all classes online for two weeks, Thompson said in a press conference that “We will continue to remain in close contact with officials at UW-Madison along with local, state and national health experts. Students, faculty and staff must be vigilant to combat this virus. It is important to note that each of our universities faces different circumstances and we continue to monitor their situations daily.”

The UW System on Aug. 20 announced COVID-19 testing protocols that are being implemented at each UW campus, excluding UW-Madison. UW-Madison is operating under different protocols due to having the largest campus population in the state. The UW System plans to have 317,000 tests available for students living in residence halls.

Most of these tests will be Quidel antigen analyzers, which allow those who are tested to be identified if they are a part of an early outbreak. The tests are non-invasive to the nasal cavity, so students do not have to worry about a cotton swab tickling their brain. The antigen test will still swab the nasal cavity to identify certain proteins on the surface of the virus. The results of these tests come back as soon as 20 minutes. The testing will be conducted by UW-River Falls staff members and passed along to Pierce County Public Health.

If a student does test positive, they will be asked by university health officials to take another test. That second test will take around 24 hours for results. UW-River Falls has the capacity to test up to 1,000 students a week, and will constantly ask students to take COVID-19 tests, whether they feel sick or not, to keep up a randomized sample for case numbers on campus.

Travis said UW-River Falls has plans in place for when students test positive for COVID-19.

“We have a well-defined plan now that once a student tests positive, they will be put into a quarantine,” he said. “Depending on whether they live on or off campus, the plans will differ. Students that live on campus will be moved to nearby hotels in town. We have a certain number of rooms on hold at each hotel to put students into quarantine, provide meals for them, three meals a day, two snacks. Their meals just get dropped off at the door so there are no face-to-face interactions. They stay for two weeks, we ask them to work with their instructors to provide accommodations so they can keep up with their classes.”

UW-River Falls is using a QR code system to keep track of student activity. QR code signs have been placed all over campus where students are expected to spend 15 minutes or more inside, such as classrooms, the University Center, the Falcon Center and residence halls. As long as students are using the QR code system, Pierce County Public Health will be able to trace where possible exposures happened on campus, and people can be identified if they picked up the virus from being at a certain place at a certain time.

A week ago on Sept. 9, UW-River Falls had four positive COVID-19 cases on campus, but that number rose to 26 by Sept. 14, according to UWRF data reported on the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard. The increase prompted Interim Chancellor Connie Foster to warns students that non-compliance with university safety directives could lead to a conduct violation.

Off-campus activity is one thing that has many people worried in the River Falls community. It will be easy for the university and Pierce County Public Health to trace activity and spread of COVID-19 on campus, but the same cannot be said for what students do off campus.

“I think the biggest thing I am personally worried about is what is going to happen off campus,” said Adam Leseman, UW-River Falls Student Senate president. “Especially since we are such a backpack school, I would say a majority of students go home over the weekends, so it’s just a thing where everyone is going back home, they raise the risk of bringing the virus to their homes or back to campus from their homes.”

Leseman continued, “I would bring up that a lot of what we have been talking about, too, is how do we discourage people who are going to parties off campus to not go to these parties. The biggest issue that we have with that communication right now is the vacancy of not having a dean of students. That is who is supposed to be communicating to us as students from administration. So it doesn’t seem like upper administration hasn’t had a lot of communication with us as students. The only thing I have heard that looks at the off-campus aspect is the ‘Wear, Watch and Wash’ campaign that they’re trying to start, trying to get people to wear a mask, watch their distance and wash their hands frequently.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said in a recent television interview that sending students home from campuses across America, whether they are sick or not, would be a worst-case scenario. Both the campus communities and the communities these students would be returning to would see a spike in case numbers and become hot spots for COVID-19, according to Fauci.

UW-River Falls is allowing students to return home to quarantine if they choose to do so. Travis said that other campuses are letting students go home to quarantine, and UW-River Falls cannot prevent students from choosing to do so as well.

“A lot of people are expecting the campus to shut down again because we won’t be able to contain it this fall,” said Doug Margolis, chair of Faculty Senate. “One of our math professors did a statistical modeling of what kind of number of cases we might have given a certain growth rate, and a certain number of cases to start with. He was predicting based on having one case on campus, and given a conservative 1.15 growth rate in infections, that we would have 150 cases by Sept. 20.”

For now, the campus community is to take things one day at a time. By the end of September, students and staff will have a better idea from the administration on whether they will continue the semester on campus or at home.

For more information on testing results and case numbers at UW-River Falls, visit the website uwrf.edu/COVID-19. Testing numbers and results are updated daily.