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Chancellor's Blog: University, community work together for a successful fall

| James Schmidt

Higher education has never faced an environment like the one before us now. COVID-19 represents a threat to our personal health, our community and to the ways we thought the world worked. The pandemic has affected each of us and our families differently, and the need for individual decision making confounds a one-size-fits-all approach. The Blugold Family is no different.

As we prepare to welcome students back to campus later this month, the Chippewa Valley’s collaborative spirit will be essential for a successful fall semester. I have been pleased to see so many businesses and organizations supporting the Eau Claire Chamber’s “We Ask That You Wear A Mask” campaign. We must all work together to maintain a safe, healthy environment and embrace the benefits of having our students, faculty and staff living, learning, and working in Eau Claire.

When considering whether to hold in-person classes this fall, we asked ourselves what sets a Blugold Degree apart. We found that meaningful engagement with peers, faculty mentors and our community were essential to our tradition of “Excellence.” As we heard this spring, our students and faculty truly prefer in-person teaching to virtual learning because of the research, collaboration and engagement opportunities with peers and mentors. Additionally, many regions of Wisconsin lack reliable broadband internet, and virtual learning is not a good fit for many of our most vulnerable Blugolds.

My top priority for reopening this fall is the safety of students, faculty, and staff on campus, and we have taken several important steps to prepare for the semester. This summer, we developed plans for a mask requirement, a symptom monitoring and testing plan, several strategic course delivery models and campus visitor restrictions to help keep UW-Eau Claire’s learning environment safe.

We determined early on that requiring masks in campus buildings and classrooms would help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the UW System Board of Regents later adopted a mask-mandate for all University of Wisconsin campuses. Tracking symptoms on a daily basis will help students, faculty, and staff note changes in their health and enable prompt access to testing. We’ll do this using an application, first developed at the Mayo Clinic and updated for COVID-19 using HIPAA-compliant security software. This will be an essential tool for helping students and employees know when to get tested, and campus contact tracers will work expediently to identify potential exposures if a test comes back positive.

We have worked diligently to transform how we use our buildings, organize our classrooms and provide essential student services to comply with physical-distancing standards. Our classes will be offered in a variety of forms, including entirely in-person (43 percent), entirely online (21 percent), and hybrid (36 percent) — a mix of both where in-person classes are complemented by some online activities.

While our grounds will remain open to the public, we will be limiting public events and visitors to campus to reduce opportunities for community spread. We will not be renting our facilities to any outside organization or group. Visitors will be minimized this semester, and those who do come to campus will be directed to designated check-in locations to provide contact information, confirm they are wearing a mask and have their temperature taken before going into a campus building.

UW-Eau Claire’s motto of “Excellence” is about engaging with the world around us. Our rigorous education doesn’t shy away from the most difficult subjects and problems of our day. Instead, Blugolds lean in and grapple with history and the fundamental contradictions of the human condition, and apply their knowledge to improve the communities and organizations they serve after graduation.

This is the work of a university. UW-Eau Claire exists to engage with the most challenging subjects and envision a new and better future for our world. Blugolds are poised to ask the questions and conduct the research projects that lead to innovation in the health sciences, in business, in education, in the humanities and in every facet of our lives.

But we still need your help and solidarity to promote safe and healthy practices on and off the campus. We are living through this moment together, one day at a time. I know this community will prepare, monitor, and adapt to changing conditions. And we will make decisions as we have since the pandemic began: based on data, in collaboration with federal, state and local health officials, with the safety of all firmly in mind.