MILWAUKEE — The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents says it faces a catastrophic economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic, but its most urgent concern is whether students will be able to return to campuses this fall.
Officials representing Wisconsin’s 13 state universities said Thursday that they remain hopeful students will be back in the classroom starting in the fall semester, but they admit, it’s up in the air at this point.
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The UW Board of Regents has a number of concerns about students returning to campuses in late August. They said social distancing will be a guarantee, but UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone believes classroom sizes could be greatly limited.
“We’re going to probably be yoked to no more than 50 people so those former lectures of 175, 300, 400 people, I think those are going to be a long time before we can get back to that and I say a long time, maybe 2021,” Mone said during a conference call Thursday.
Students in dorms is also a big worry as UW officials fear widespread cases in tight quarters.
“There’s a question of whether you have to put one person per room or whether you could do it with two people per room,” said UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.
UW Regents said it’s almost certain that online classes will continue to play a major role in college learning next school year, but to get students back in the classroom, there are five criteria that all state colleges have to meet starting with widespread testing for students, faculty and staff.
“That is a monumental task,” said UW-System President Ray Cross.
Cross said contact tracing is the next hurdle, followed by isolation capabilities for students who get COVID-19.
“Can we isolate them in facilities appropriately and provide healthcare as well as food and other services they might need while there?” Cross questioned.
Cross said the next challenge is separation including closing off spaces on campuses where a large number of students normally gather.
Lastly, Cross said universities will have to be able to provide personal protective equipment for all faculty and staff.
“We have to do that and we have to do it in such a way that they feel comfortable and safe as well as our students,” Cross said.
UW Regents said they won’t make a final decision about whether to allow students back on campuses in the fall until at least June.
The UW System faces nearly $100 million in net losses through this summer due to reimbursements for room and board and a decrease in financial aid.
UW officials fear next school year could be far worse. UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mone anticipates his university will face a $50-100 million deficit next school year.