RIVER FALLS — The University of Wisconsin-River Falls will require mandatory COVID-19 testing for students in residence halls as part of a gradual return this week to some in-person classes and the lifting of a two-week shelter-in-place policy.

The clampdown started Sept. 18 in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases since the start of the fall semester.

“We’ve further refined our already robust plans for mitigating risks associated with the pandemic,” Chancellor Connie Foster said in a news release Thursday, Oct. 1. “We are now taking additional steps to better ensure the health and safety of our community.”

Instructors were allowed to gradually resume face-to-face activities starting Monday, the university said. More than 70% of courses are offered in part or wholly online.

READ MORE: Hudson district switches to partial hybrid instruction | COVID-19 cases rise dramatically, so Pierce County urges small gatherings

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Students will not be able to remain in or move back to residence halls if they have not been tested for the respiratory disease, the university announced. Residence hall students also will be required to continue getting tested every two weeks.

Students living off campus are encouraged, though not required, to get tested, according to campus policy. All students must get tested if experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Data do not indicate spread of COVID-19 in classrooms, but instead point to off-campus gatherings, the news release states. Foster said she and university leaders were disappointed to learn of students not following health protocols.

“We realize this is not the ideal experience — having to refrain from some of the things college students look forward to, the parties, the gatherings with friends,” Foster said. “COVID is a real threat to the health of our campus and the community around us. Students can make a very big difference through small personal sacrifices.”

Residence halls

Most students who tested positive during the spike in cases were isolated off campus, though some were kept on campus in apartments and suites, according to an emailed statement Friday from the Chancellor's Office. Units were selected that were previously unoccupied and had separate bathrooms and kitchens. Isolated students were asked not to use any shared facilities in the suites.

The move drew criticism from residence hall students concerned that classmates with COVID-19 were isolating in dorms without other residents being notified.

Sophomore and Ames Suites resident Mikayla Whitehill said she didn't learn that a fellow resident had tested positive and was isolating in the dorm until speaking with her a couple of days ago.

"We didn't get any contact that she was positive," Whitehill said, adding she doesn't feel confident in the level of communication between administrators and students.

The university said information about students in quarantine or isolation is protected by law and is not shared.

"While we are not required to notify residents about these isolation spaces being occupied, we recognize that we could have been clearer about the potential use of this space to ensure transparency around any safety concerns," according to the statement.

The university's revised plan is to move students out of Stratton Hall on the west side of campus — the least occupied of the residence halls — and use it as a dedicated isolation space.

Students were moved out of Stratton Hall so the building could be used as a dedicated isolation space for University of Wisconsin-River Falls students who test positive for COVID-19. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Students were moved out of Stratton Hall so the building could be used as a dedicated isolation space for University of Wisconsin-River Falls students who test positive for COVID-19. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

Pierce County Public Health has been working with the university this fall to increase contact tracing staff on campus, Health Officer AZ Snyder said in an email Monday. Three additional disease investigators and three contact tracers were trained by the county and have begun working on student cases.

Snyder said there has been a downward trend in cases locally since UWRF's shelter-in-place policy was instituted. She called on the university and surrounding community to keep following health recommendations.

"We are hopeful we will be able to keep K-12 schools and UWRF in-person through the coming months, but that won't be possible if we see huge spikes like the one we experienced in mid-September," Snyder said.

There were 181 positive cases out of 3,078 tests conducted on campus from Aug. 26 to Oct. 4, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard.

Pierce County Public Health reported nine active cases of COVID-19 at UWRF and 15 probable cases as of Monday.

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