RIVER FALLS — The University of Wisconsin System will reopen campuses this week for the start of the fall semester. That’s a different approach than the University of Minnesota, which pushed back the move-in date for its Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses and will hold classes online only for at least the first two weeks.

Differences in the COVID-19 plans are felt most acutely in border communities such as River Falls and Superior, where the universities attract a large number of commuter students from Minnesota. It could mean a UW student will have some classes in person while family members or friends attending the U of M continue to study from home.

University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson said reopening campuses was the right choice for the state.

“I’m not criticizing anybody else, I’m just saying I think we made the right decision for Wisconsin right now, and we feel good about it,” Thompson said during a conference call with reporters Monday, Aug. 31.

The UW System has communicated regularly with the U of M and continues to work closely with local health departments, Thompson added.

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The former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush praised preparedness measures at the UW System’s 13 universities to mitigate risks to students, faculty and staff amid the ongoing pandemic, including a testing plan he touted as “the best of any university in the United States right now.”

The UW System’s plan, supported by $18 million allocated by Gov. Tony Evers’ administration from federal CARES Act dollars, provides for 350,000 COVID-19 tests, with another $6 million for protective equipment associated with testing, according to a news release. UW-Madison will operate its testing regimen under a separate $8 million allocation by the governor.

Funds will allow for:

  • testing of up to 34,000 students showing symptoms using typical COVID-19 tests,
  • and 317,000 rapid-result tests for students in residence halls using “antigen testing machines," the news release states.

“The ability to quickly identify individuals who are asymptomatic yet shedding the virus is the key to preventing or controlling the spread of the virus,” according to a UW System statement.

There are approximately 170,000 students in the UW System across 26 campuses.

Community cooperation

Thompson also touched on the added importance this year for students and businesses in university towns to act responsibly when it comes to partying and consuming alcohol.

In a joint letter Aug. 24 with the Tavern League of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Thompson called on bars and restaurants to enforce the statewide mask mandate and encourage physical distancing.

UW campuses could be closed if spread of the coronavirus worsens, Thompson said.

“We just want (students) to be careful, we want them to be responsible, we want them to be helpful and we want them to help us keep the campuses open for the full semester,” he said.

A dashboard will be set up this fall to publicly report COVID-19 cases in the UW System.