University of Wisconsin System leaders are working on safety protocols that could enable students to return to campus if the coronavirus pandemic stretches into fall, system President Ray Cross told regents Thursday.
Cross told the regents during a teleconference that system leaders want to be able to test all faculty, staff and students — a task he called “monumental.” They also want to be able to trace student contacts, create a way to isolate and quarantine the sick as well as infected people who aren't showing symptoms.
Leaders also want to be able to identify public spaces where people could meet safely and provide protective gear to faculty and students.
“We will be back in session in fall,” Cross said. “How we deliver that, it won't be normal. It will be different."
Regent Tracey Klein said it would take an “unbelievable amount of work” to bring students back to campus.
But Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank tried to paint a positive picture. Cross said several weeks ago that he thought opening dorms was akin to putting students in a petri dish or on a cruise ship, but advances in testing have given him hope. Blank said her executives are looking at smaller class sizes; lectures with 200 to 300 students won't happen, she said.
“I have every hope we will open fully,” Blank said. “[But] it won't be a normal semester.”
UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said his campus might start with only distance learning and then transition to small groups. But he warned that the school may have to go back to distance learning if the virus spikes again.
But Cross said the goal was to be able to handle a resurgence on campus.
The meeting came hours after Cross introduced a plan calling for the system's regional campuses to get ready to cut programs by January and brace for layoffs as the system grapples with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The system shut down in-person learning, sent students home and moved classes online in March, leading to financial losses in parking fees, athletic ticket sales, food sales and technology purchases.
System Vice President for Finance Sean Nelson told the regents that the system expects to lose $212 million through the summer semester. Federal stimulus aid and cost-saving measures such as furloughs, a hiring freeze and travel reductions should reduce that loss to $98.6 million.
The system has already been chafing under a resident undergraduate tuition freeze Republican lawmakers imposed in the 2013-2015 state budget. State aid for the system has been trending down as well; Cross said in his plan that aid has shrunk 6% since the fiscal year 2007-08.
Cross told regents that no campus is in danger of closing but “if we want the system to survive on the other side of this pandemic ... we've got to act now. We've got to act as if our future depends on it. It does.”
The regents had been set to discuss the pandemic further in a closed session Thursday, citing an exception to the state's open-meeting laws allowing closed meetings for competitive or bargaining reasons. But they scuttled it at the last minute after open government advocates complained that the regents were applying the exception too broadly.
“This is an interpretation that could swallow the rule that meetings should be open,” Christa Westerberg, an attorney specializing in open government laws, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Regent President Andrew Petersen told the board that he didn't want any “confusion” about what would be discussed at the open meeting and closed session.