Regents President: UW System ready for safe second semester, hopes schools become vaccination hubs

MADISON, Wis. — There are some big goals for Wisconsin’s 13 public universities next year.  One of the biggest is an ambition to have some serve as COVID-19 vaccination hubs as doses become more widely available.

First, the UW System has a more pressing goal: get second semester started safely.  A return to in-person classes after winter break is going to expected, thanks to a lot of hard work.

“They’ve risen to the occasion, they’ve been disciplined,” UW System Regents President Andrew Petersen said.

Peterson was talking about the students, specifically, during a Monday morning Zoom call with News 3 Now.  He thinks students deserve praise after getting off to a rough start.

“We send students to college to become better, well rounded citizens, to age up and become adults. Well, they had to do that in short order this year,” Petersen said.

UW-Madison quickly pivoted to online-only classes and locked down two residence halls in September as cases spiked.  Since then, the school and system as a whole have gotten case counts under control.

“I’m proud that we’ve not only been able to test our students, our faculty and staff, but in 13 regions across the state, we’re providing testing to citizens and making our communities safer at no cost,” Petersen said.

The UW System will have run more than 500,000 tests for students, staff, and the public at its campus sites statewide by the end of the month.  Meanwhile, the system lowered its overall positivity rate to below 5 percent, falling below 1 percent at UW-Madison among students and staff late last week.  Peterson credits students and staff for responding to challenges, while also acknowledging  good leadership.

“[He’s been] making the case that we’ve gotta smash covid, that we’ve gotta be disciplined,” Petersen said, referring to System President Tommy Thompson’s so-named social media videos.

Thompson stands by his decision this summer to open the school year in-person.  He says he learned a lot over the last four months, but the biggest lesson was to expand testing.

“We’re smarter about it, we’re better organized, we’ve got more people that know how to do it now,” Thompson told News 3 Now last week.  “It’s just going to be so much safer and better next semester than it was first semester.”

That includes testing students living on campus twice a week.  Those living off-campus will get tested every other week.

Petersen knows some families and students won’t feel safe about returning to campus in January.   He says there will be online options for students and staff with health conditions or general concerns over their wellbeing.

Meanwhile, enrollment did fall about 2 percent systemwide in late 2020 compared to 3 percent nationwide first semester.  Enrollment among first-year students was also down about 6 percent at that time, but that was far below the estimated 16 percent drop nationally.   Petersen points to safety measures Wisconsin’s universities are putting place as signs that hard work this fall will pay off next spring.

“I think when you consider the kind of success that we’ve had this first semester compared to other systems across this country, UW System is the best destination for a student to come January 2021,” he said.

Free public COVID-19 testing is available on the UW-Madison campus through Dec. 23.  It will shut down for the holidays, but is expected to resume Jan. 5.