As many universities welcomed back students this fall, several have been forced to change and modify their reopening plans after their attempts at containing COVID-19 failed. As a result, they have made life for students even more difficult than if they had stuck with remote learning.
I am a freshman at University of Wisconsin, Madison (UW-Madison), and I personally found it very difficult to adjust to my new college life, especially as the university kept changing its policies in its attempts to control a COVID-19 outbreak.
My college experience had started in a relatively normal fashion with move-in week from August 22 to 28. UW-Madison was using a hybrid system with most classes remaining online and only a few classes in-person. I had classes in-person three times a week.
But within a week, COVID-19 cases began to rise with most of these cases coming from off-campus, and especially from Greek housing.
To adapt, a lot of clubs and student organizations had found ways to host in-person meetings and events outside, with groups of less than 25 people as per school guidance. But on September 6, Chancellor Rebecca Blank ordered a suspension of all in-person activities, except classes. All club meetings were therefore moved online. Even with this policy change, cases kept rising.
Then on September 9, a day in which many students now refer to as the “Wisconsin Purge,” the campus situation deteriorated rapidly. It began that morning when the County Executive of Dane County, where UW-Madison is located, asked the university to shut down and send students home. Throughout the day, rumors and confusion swirled over the status of our campus. Then, around 5 p.m., Chancellor Blank announced that the university’s two biggest dorms, Witte and Sellery, were going to be locked down for two weeks.
These two dorms housed over 3,000 students, and none of them would be allowed to leave the building. However, students within these two dorms were given the choice of going home in lieu of a two-week lockdown. On the same day, it was announced that all in-person classes were moved online, the dining halls and all other open areas were closed, and the rest of the dorms were all put into shelter-in-place, which means we were strongly recommended to not leave the building, but this was not enforced.
Within the next few days, over 7,000 students decided to return to their hometowns indefinitely until the situation improves. Many students also cancelled their university housing contracts for the rest of the academic year and moved to secure off-campus housing. Others, including myself, threw in the towel and just moved back home. After flying to Wisconsin from Sammamish with excitement for my freshman year, I found myself on a sullen flight home just two weeks later.
Universities across the country have followed a similar trajectory to UW-Madison due to half-baked reopening plans. The University of Notre Dame decided to open its campus for the school year with almost all in-person classes. But they also had an outbreak and quickly moved classes online for two weeks, while imposing a similar dorm lockdown. James Madison University saw an outbreak and sent students home in early September, but in an about-face, is now trying to bring students back on campus. Many students are hesitant to return. The University of Colorado, Boulder, experienced an outbreak in late September, and moved all classes online, while the City of Boulder banned all people of ages 18 to 22 from gathering in groups larger than two.
With all these constant changes happening to modes of learning, socializing, and living on campus, it is very difficult for students to adjust to life at a new school and environment. Understandably, colleges want to keep their dorms open in order to make money and students also want to live in dorms to have a normal college experience. However, this continuous whiplash for students is eroding our patience and confidence in school officials, and we have voted with our feet by going home permanently. Many students are considering transferring to schools closer to their hometowns, so they can more easily cope with the back-and-forth of university housing.
Colleges need to get their act together as they plan to reopen, and take a hard look at whether it is feasible to open up their campuses and dorms in the first place. A big reason why colleges are having to shut down is because they are running out of quarantine housing to separate students who test positive for COVID-19. Colleges should implement more robust plans for quarantining students who test positive, and ensure adequate quarantine facilities are available so that entire dorms do not have to lock down. In addition, social distancing must be enforced very strictly on campuses.
Although this is a hard time for everyone, universities should try to make student lives easier, instead of pursuing profit-driven strategies that lead to uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks. Before they open their campuses, they must have stronger reopening plans that address how the virus is spread, so that they will not have to lock down again.
Stuti Bhardwaj is currently a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She graduated from Issaquah High School. After UW-Madison resumed in-person classes on September 23, Ms. Bhardwaj returned to campus to give it another shot.