UW-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank stands by decision to begin school year with in-person classes

The state’s flagship campus may be locked down but University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank isn’t backing down from the decision to begin the school year with in-person classes.

“I know not everyone is going to agree with this next statement but I do believe that the decision to open campus this fall was the right one for several reasons,” Blank told reporters Monday.

UW-Madison last week paused in-person instruction for two weeks, just one week into students’ return to campus following a surge of COVID-19 cases. Online classes began Monday.

Blank said in-person instruction is “the better way to go,” safety protocols in classrooms “have worked” and most students were going to be in Madison during the fall, anyway.

“They did not want to be back in their bedrooms with mom and dad,” she said.

Blank acknowledged, though, that “it’s difficult to change behaviors.”

Officials said 300 students have been referred to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards for violations of housing or campus policies relating to to COVID-19.

Eight emergency suspensions have occurred.

“We’re taking these violations very seriously and holding students accountable,” Blank said.

The school is also considering extending the date for full tuition refunds. Normally, students are eligible for a full refund until Sept. 11 and a 50% refund by Sept. 25. 

For housing, the refund is pro-rated based on when the student cancels their contract.

All of this comes as seven Wisconsin college towns are in the country’s top 20 metro areas where new COVID-19 cases are rising the fastest, according to data from the New York Times.

The city of La Crosse took the nationwide No. 2 spot Monday morning, as nearly 70% of tests administered Sunday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse came back positive.

Whitewater, Platteville, Madison, Green Bay, Eau Claire and Oshkosh rounded out the state’s showing in the national top-20 ranking. All seven of the cities are home to UW campuses, where classes for the fall semester started recently.

The spiking case numbers across the UW System came as UW-Whitewater leaders said Monday the school might have to switch to online-only classes if trends continue.

“If we do not take this more seriously and we do not follow the safety measures, we are at risk of not making it through the whole semester,” UW-Whitewater interim chancellor Greg Cook said in a video message to students. “We might need to go all-remote at some time. I sincerely hope not.”

“We don’t want to be the next university to go all-remote,” Cook said.

Cook urged students to stay in their dormitories and apartments to contain the spread of the virus.

“I am very confident that we can pull this together,” he said.

Also Monday, the UW-Madison faculty senate was set to vote on a proposal to eliminate spring break in an attempt to limit students’ long-distance travel.

The proposal would nix the school’s March 27-April 4 spring break and instead extend winter break by one week. The school would also have a long weekend April 2-4.

Classes would end at the same time as in the existing plan: April 30.

The vote is set for 3:30 p.m. Monday.

On Sunday UW-Madison recorded 79 new COVID-19 cases, including 48 cases in on-campus housing. The number of new cases Sunday was lower than earlier in the week, but administrators expected to see a rise in the week ahead.

An average of 2,400 students were tested daily last week.  According to university data, 433 students were quarantined Monday in addition to the residents of Sellery and Witte halls and some fraternities and sororities.

Across Dane County Sunday, more than 3,600 tests were administered, with about 6.3% returning positive results.

Also Sunday, UW-La Crosse issued an urgent “shelter in place” order, citing an increase of COVID-19 cases, and suspended in-person undergraduate instruction for two weeks.

At UW-La Crosse Sunday, 51 students tested positive out of the 74 tests administered for a positivity rate of 68%.

This story will be updated.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.