Coronavirus outbreak could affect UW’s fall semester

University of Wisconsin President Ray Cross cautioned Thursday that the coronavirus outbreak that has already led to the suspension of all in-person spring classes could also force changes to the fall semester, which is scheduled to begin in August.

Cross, in addressing the university’s Board of Regents, said UW was working on various scenarios based on rapidly changing conditions. The flagship UW-Madison campus announced Thursday that it was moving all in-person summer classes scheduled to start in May to online only, another sign that leaders don’t expect a return to normalcy for months.

Cross said plans for the fall will be made in coming weeks based on an array of assumptions "which continue to change and will continue to change over the next 60 days."

UW-Madison, which has about 45,000 students, alone has projected a $100 million financial hit due to the virus. Cross said that under the federal stimulus, the university will receive $47 million in grants for students and $47 million for institutional support, money he called a "powerful down payment to help the university’s most immediate needs."

But he also said that more will be needed in the coming months.

"We will continue to face lost revenues and increased costs at our campuses," Cross said. "Those numbers continue to grow day by day. … This economic hit is not just impacting universities. It’s impacting every family in this country."

Cross said stabilizing the university system, which is a major employer across the state, is critical to putting it in position to help restart the economy as shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

"So whats next?" Cross said. "The truth is we don’t know what’s next and I don’t think many folks do."

As of Wednesday, more than 1,500 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the state and 24 had died, based on figures from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. About 26% of those who tested positive had been hospitalized at some point.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The university is looking into converting empty residence halls into overflow rooms for hospital patients and health care workers. A hotel and conference center on the UW-Madison campus this week opened as an isolation center for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.