As UWRF students return, virus concerns remain

Posted October 12, 2020

After having students back on campus for only three and half weeks for the fall semester, UW-River Falls enacted a two-week shelter-in-place order because of a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.

Now that the two week quarantine is being lifted for UW-River Falls, the university has plans in its Falcons Forward initiative to prevent further spread.

“We’re very happy with the numbers we have seen over the past two weeks. Obviously, we have not been testing quite as many students,” Beth Schommer, chief of staff in the Chancellor’s Office, said via a phone interview. “Starting with our mandatory testing protocol we will be testing 250 students a day for the rest of the semester. We may see another rise in cases but it will be manageable as we will have more precautions in place.”

The increase in testing capacity gives UW-River Falls more confidence in managing and contact tracing COVID-19 cases, according to Schommer. It may also prevent another two-week shelter-in-place order before Thanksgiving break.

All students who plan to be on campus starting Monday, Oct. 5, must be tested under a mandatory order from the university. Students residing on campus will also have to be tested at least every two weeks in order to continue living there. Failure to do so will result in disciplinary action.

“As the level grows in terms of the breakage of the rules, the way we handle it will become more and more extreme,” Provost David Travis said of possible disciplinary measures. “If we have a person that is blatantly breaking the rules multiple times, there is a student misconduct process that we follow that could eventually lead to them being sent home.”

The university will discipline students for any nonacademic conduct off campus under Chapter UWS 17 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. If a student continues to present themselves as a threat to the health and safety of themselves or others, they may be subject to disciplinary sanctions up to and including expulsion.

But even with the strict COVID-19 health regulations being enforced, students are still not following them only days after the two-week shelter-in-place was lifted.

Monday evening, Oct. 5, around 35 students could be seen playing or sitting around the basketball courts outside the freshmen residence halls on the east side of campus. Pierce County Public Health has discouraged outdoor gatherings of more than 75 people. If people are gathering outdoors at a number of 75 or less, they must be keeping 6 feet apart and wearing masks. Almost all students who were on or around the basketball court were not wearing masks or minding social distance recommendations.

UW-River Falls senior Brett Davison said he wasn’t happy to see these students gather in such a large crowd for a pickup game of basketball.

“It’s unfortunate that people don’t want to take this seriously and don’t think about who they will affect if they catch the virus,” said Davison. “There are people who take it seriously and may get the virus, but they shouldn’t have to suffer because of other people’s reckless actions.”

Student activity off campus has some public health officials and community members feeling more confident about student conduct in regards to COVID-19 health regulations now that the shelter-in-place order has been lifted.

“I have seen very responsible behavior and we continue to have faith in students that they will make the right choices,” said A.Z. Snyder, director of Pierce County Public Health. “I live two blocks away from campus. I live right off of 3rd and Maple and I live really close to a lot of student housing. The university thinks very highly of its students and places an extreme amount of trust in their students. So they always hope for the best. I think they definitely have strong plans in place in case things don’t work out for the best.”

When the shelter-in-place order went into effect Sept. 18, about 800 students left campus, according to data collected from Pierce County Public Health. But both Pierce County Public Health and UW-River Falls are not certain if any of the students who left campus went untested and brought the virus back to their communities.

“I would not say I am worried,” said Schommer about the likelihood of students bringing COVID-19 back to their homes. “I would say it would be really unfortunate if that were to happen. That was why we provided the guidance of shelter-in-place. I think we followed up with a few queries that came afterwards saying if someone went home, they needed to shelter in place at home.”

Snyder said she was not aware if any students did bring the virus back home to their families once the shelter-in-place order was put into effect, but did have information on students who did so before the order took place.

Skepticism still remains around the UW-River Falls campus and greater River Falls community on how seriously students will take COVID-19.

Hundreds of universities in the U.S. remain open, even after the virus has proven no one in the demographic of college students is invincible to it. On Sept. 28, a 19-year old student at Appalachian State University in North Carolina died of COVID-19 complications.

“Of course the death of a student from COVID-19 would devastate the health department and the community emotionally to know that a student passed away from COVID-19,” said Snyder. “That would be devastating and I pray that it does not happen.”

Pierce County did have one recorded COVID-19 death in the month of September, however, the victim was not related to UW-River Falls cases.

As of Oct. 5, UW-River Falls still has 80 active COVID-19 cases with 14 of those in isolation.