PANDEMIC EDUCATION: WISCONSIN SCHOOL ENACTS DRASTIC MEASURES TO COMBAT COVID-19

By Annika Wall

KAYLA MARTHALER, TRUMPET MANAGING EDITOR

More than 170 miles from Waverly and Wartburg College, a different scene unfolded for college students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

As he drove through the Wisconsin farmland, Ethan Townsend’s car passed cornfield after cornfield, his high beams fighting against the pressing darkness, his backseat filled with almost everything he owned. An occasional dairy farm broke up the monotony of the drive.

He couldn’t help but feel relief.

“I was glad to be in a safer place,” Townsend, a first-year student at UW-River Falls, said. “I was honestly surprised that they hadn’t made us leave sooner.”

Like a lot of those at Wartburg College, Townsend is a student who had entered the semester with feelings of uncertainty about what the school year held.

Just over an hour earlier, Townsend was enjoying a slice of pizza at the university cafeteria when he got an email from his residential life office:

“Dear Ethan Townsend,

This evening, UW-River Falls announced a move to remote learning for two weeks and a shelter-in-place plan for all on-campus residents.

We did this because the rate of COVID-19 transmission has increased to a level where the university, in collaboration with Pierce County Public Health, needs to respond.”

Without thinking too much about it, Townsend quickly finished his meal and rushed back to his dorm. He was not expecting the chaos that he arrived to.

“It was surreal,” Townsend said. “There were cars lined up in front of the dorms with people loading them up, and there were a bunch of people carrying their things through the hallways. It felt like move out day.”

Townsend called his parents and grandparents to see where he could stay after he left the dorms. 

“I left that night,” Townsend said. “My parents said that I could stay with them, so I started packing. I panic-packed; I grabbed my TV, my PlayStation, my computer, both my monitors, clothes, and my sheets for some reason. I think that I took so much because I kind of thought that we might not be coming back.”

Townsend was one of 6,139 students who were given a shelter-in-place order by the University of Wisconsin River Falls on Friday, Sept. 18. Students were encouraged to stay on campus; however, they were allowed to go home if they felt more comfortable doing so.

“Almost everyone I know left,” Townsend said. “Most people left within the hour of the announcement.”

According to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls COVID-19 Dashboard, there were over 50 active cases when the university made the shelter-in-place announcement. 

Colleges and universities have become hot spots for coronavirus transmission, and University of Wisconsin-River Falls is not the only school that has gone online for their students’ health and safety.

According to Emily Christensen, assistant director of marketing and communication and member of the Campus Health Recovery Team at Wartburg, the college’s COVID-19 cases peaked at 75 positives on Sept. 5, and the number of positive test results has since declined.

Dr. Daniel Kittle, Wartburg dean of students, said that it is very unlikely that Wartburg will take similar measures to combat the spread on campus.

“I’m a little skeptical that it would help mitigate the spread,” Kittle said. “We don’t have the capacity to deliver three meals a day to over 1,200 students, which means that students would need to leave their residence halls in order to eat. Are we then not going to enable students to work on campus? Probably not. So, all of a sudden you can make a pretty long list of exceptions.”

Kittle said he has spoken to other institutions who have tried a similar shelter or quarantine-in-place orders with little success due to the exceptions that are inevitably made.

“As far as having students go home, that is also a concern from a public health standpoint,” Kittle said. “We don’t want to be a part of a spread. So, if we had a large number of students leaving campus, we wouldn’t be able to mitigate the spread.”

Wartburg’s Winter Term academic schedule was released on Oct. 16, and puts the same emphasis on distance learning and campus containment as the Fall Term. This includes measures such as starting directly after the semester break on Jan. 5, the cancelation of winter break, an early end to the semester on April 2 and a remote finals week. Students will return for May Term on April 26, and finish the 2020-21 school year on May 20.

“We are trying to discourage the types of travel that we worry could endanger the campus,” Kittle said. “The challenge with this is I have felt a tension between the public health, physical health and mental health pieces. We’re trying to work out a couple days off so that students won’t have to work through every day and increase that tension.”

While Wartburg is staying on-campus and including in-person options for Winter Term, students are also offered the option of going completely remote.

“At my school, we were pretty much completely online from the beginning of the year,” Townsend said. “It gives me more peace of mind, knowing that I don’t really come into contact with anyone. A lot of people in my family are at-risk because of health reasons, so I’ve just been really worried for them.”

Townsend’s grandfather lives 30 minutes away from where he is attending university, and he was hoping that the year would be filled with friendly visits and tête-à-têtes. Due to COVID-19, Townsend has to be incredibly careful about who he comes into contact with, and how that could affect his loved ones.

“I’m going to stay online for the rest of the year. It’s just easier for me,” Townsend said.

Whether it’s for safety, piece of mind, family ties, or any other reason, Wartburg students who want to go online have the opportunity to do so.

“We’ve probably had approximately 40 students transfer to remote learning this semester, and the way they do that is by having individual conversations with Edith Waldstein,” Kittle said. “For the Winter Term, students need to reach out to her to assess their situations.”

According to Kittle, when students contact Waldstein, vice president for enrollment management, they can expect to have a conversation about what their needs and concerns are. The first goal of these conversations is to try and mitigate the concerns or fears that students might have, before discussing potential class schedules and remote learning options for the Winter Term.

“Our No. 1 goal is to ensure the physical and mental well-being of students,” Kittle said.

Students can contact Waldstein at edith.waldstein@wartburg.edu, or learn more about Wartburg’s COVID-19 guidelines and health resources at wartburg.edu/knights-care/.

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