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University of Wisconsin-Madison eliminates spring break

Dropping spring break would discourage students and staff from traveling long distances and bringing the virus that causes COVID-19 back to campus, officials said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison decided Monday to eliminate spring break next semester in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The university's Faculty Senate voted 140-7 to erase the nine-day break from the 2021 spring calendar. Officials said the move is designed to discourage students and staff from traveling long distances and bringing the virus that causes COVID-19 back to campus, officials said.

“I realize the slog of of going through a full 15 week semester with no break would be challenging, but given the vagaries of the pandemic, particularly in cold weather when people are indoors and the like. ... I’m enthusiastically supportive,” said Provost John Karl Scholz.

The proposal has classes starting on Jan. 25, a week later than currently scheduled. Spring break would be eliminated, but classes would not be held Saturday, March 27, which is the beginning of Passover; Friday, April 2, which is Good Friday; or Saturday, April 3, the day before Easter. Classes would end April 30, the same day as the current calendar.

The idea got a lukewarm reception from some senators and students. Sen. Kurt Paulsen, an urban planning professor, asked why the spring semester couldn’t start on its regular schedule. Sen. John Mackay, a philosphy professor, warned that students will travel anyway. If the semester goes online, students will just log-on from Florida for a week, he predicted.

Kevin Jacobsen, shared governence campaign director for Associated Students of Madison, said spring break offers a respite from stress from students, which is worse in the spring with internship requests and other demands as the academic year ends.

But Scholz stressed to the Senate that the plan is the best chance to reduce student travel without interfering with spring graduation.

“It’s the best of a set of imperfect proposals,” he said.

The virus has been running rampant on Wisconsin college campuses. UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse have suspended in-person undergraduate instruction for two weeks, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases.

According to data from UW-Madison, 2,138 students and 29 employees have been infected since Aug. 6. Three-hundred students have been referred to the university's Office of Student Conduct -and Community Standards for violation of housing or other policies related to COVID-19, UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith Mcglone said. Eight students have been suspended; four others are being considered for suspension, she said.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank defended the decision to open the campus this fall during a video conference with reporters, saying students were coming back to off-campus housing regardless and they learn better in person. She said she would make the same decision again.

“Even if we went all online, the majority of our students would be here,” she said. “This issue isn't going to resolve itself by telling everyone to go home. This is their home."

The deadline for a full tuition refund expired Friday, but Blank said the university was considering extending that window.

The Senate meeting began with professors and instructors grilling Blank over her decision to reopen, saying it wasn’t based on data.

“The ... plan has failed and I find any narrative that doesn’t acknowledge this and further asserts that it is the fault of students, who were invited back for an in-person semester with assurances of a safe environment, to be offensive,” Michael Childers, a business school professor, wrote in the meeting’s chat box.

Blank reiterated the points she made during her conference with reporters, insisting that students wanted to come back and she would make the decision to reopen again.

“I know there is an enormous amount of anxiety and anger out there,” she said.

State health officials on Sunday confirmed 1,582 new cases of the coronavirus, for a total of 89,185 positive tests. One new death was reported, increasing the number of fatalities from the disease to 1,210.