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University announces Smart Restart plan to reopen in fall

June 17, 2020

The University of Wisconsin–Madison plans to begin fall classes as scheduled on Sept. 2 and offer in-person instruction in many courses until the Thanksgiving recess. The course array and the modality of instruction will be determined by departments, working with the deans of their respective school or college. This will include course instruction plans for students not able to return to the U.S. for in-person instruction. 

After Thanksgiving, UW–Madison will switch to a virtual format for all courses for the final nine days of instruction plus exams. This decision is based on the likelihood that students leaving and returning to Madison over the Thanksgiving recess would increase the risk for COVID-19 infections on campus. 

To safeguard the health of the community, the university will modify many of its operations based on public health guidance. This plan, calledSmart Restart,” outlines the university’s approach to dealing with major issues such as instruction, health and safety, housing and dining, and more. Plans are continuing to evolve as decisions are finalized and new information becomes available. As more details are available, this will be communicated on a regular basis. In particular, more information will be coming soon for graduate, professional and international students. 

“I am immensely grateful to everyone in the campus community for the way they’ve come together to address the upheaval of COVID-19. It’s now time to plan for reopening this fall,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank says. To our students and their families, thank you for your resilience and understanding. To our faculty and staff, thank you for your hard work and adaptability in the face of a very disruptive spring. Although the coming academic year will be different, we will do everything we can to make sure that our students are engaged and learning effectively, while keeping the risk of infection as low as possible. 

Health and Safety 

The university is committed to reducing the risk of COVID-19 for its students, faculty and staff. UW–Madison’s strategy will rely on a rigorous approach to testing, cleaning, face covering and symptom monitoring, all aimed at keeping the risk of disease as low as possible.   

Testing is key to identifying infection and keeping it from spreading. UW will implement a three-part testing plan: 

  • On-campus, drop-in testing centers will be available to the entire campus community. Visits will be unlimited and free of charge. 
  • Surveillance testing will track the prevalence of the virus on campus, including among those who are asymptomatic. Volunteer cohorts of 10 people will be tested on a rotating basis, with up to 2,000 people tested each week. This approach will allow us to identify problems quickly and target groups that may be at greatest risk. 
  • Targeted testing will be required of certain groups for whom we have a special duty of care. For instance, all students and staff in the residence halls will be tested regularly. (Residents of University Apartments will not be part of this.) 

The university will employ contact tracers trained in conjunction with Public Health Madison & Dane County. Dedicated rooms with private bathrooms will be provided for students living on campus who test positive or may have been exposed to the virus and need to self-isolate or quarantine. 

Testing, while essential, is effective only when combined with four other precautions: face covering, physical distancing, cleaning/hygiene, and symptom monitoring

  • Everyone on campus will be required to wear face coverings in all indoor public spaces, including classrooms, and outside when physical distancing is not possible. Accommodations will be made for those unable to do this for medical reasons. 
  • Physical distancing will be expected in all classrooms and public spaces and in workspaces where possible. 
  • New procedures will be adopted to clean campus facilities. Students will be provided supplies to clean desks and seats before use and staff will be asked to clean their workspaces. 
  • Members of the campus community will be expected to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 daily and, if symptoms exist, immediately get tested and quarantine. COVID-19 educational sessions will be offered.

Preserving the health of the campus community will be a broadly shared responsibility. Students, faculty and staff on campus during the 2020-21 academic year will be asked to adhere to a set of actions that protects their health and, even more importantly, protects the health of others on campus.  


UWMadison will be fully open this fall, with a full curriculum offered through a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. While we hope that most students will be in Madison, we recognize that some may not be able to attend in person. We are making plans for them as well as our on-campus students. 

To minimize risk to students, staff and faculty, the university will rely on physical distancing in classrooms and universal face covering requirements (in addition to testing, contact tracing and symptom monitoring). Students will be asked to arrive on campus with their own face coverings; the university will provide additional ones as backup. In-person classes will abide by physical distancing guidelines and all students will be required to wear face coverings in the classroom. In addition, the university will provide cleaning supplies in each classroom that students will be encouraged to use before sitting at a desk or in a chair. Each classroom will have hand sanitizer. 

To achieve physical distancing, small classes with fewer than 50 students will be held in larger classrooms. However, this will not be possible for large lecture classes of over 100 students or for many classes with enrollments between 50 and 100. These larger classes will be offered through high-quality remote instruction, with every attempt made to hold small discussion/problem-set sessions in person for those students able to attend. Because we have fewer large classrooms, these changes mean there will be fewer classrooms available for in-person classes. As a result, the university will be scheduling some classes in the evening or even on a Saturday. 

No student will be required to attend classes on campus. The university aspires to make options available in every undergraduate major for virtual learning, and efforts will be made to address circumstances that may impact student progress. The university is investing heavily in additional technology and training to make sure that virtual classes are delivered at a high level of quality. 

Every effort will also be made to address program needs at the graduate and professional school level. However, the curriculum in some professional school programs may require hands-on training that simply cannot be converted to a virtual format. Students are encouraged to work with their program coordinators to address individual concerns.  

Tuition and fees will be the same whether a class is in person, virtual or a combination. 

All students who have already enrolled in fall courses will receive additional information in late July about changes to their course schedule for fall. The times, days, location and modality (in person or remote) may be adjusted. Students will have the opportunity, if desired, to make additional changes after reviewing the new schedule, pending course availability. 

Because small-group experiences are especially crucial to new students, the university will offer a robust array of its popular FirstYear Interest Groups, called FIGS, both in person and virtually for those who cannot be on campus. These are unique clusters of UW classes that are linked together to explore a common theme or topic, such as the environment or food cultures or global politics. About 60 FIGs will be offered this fall. 

There also will be two “Wisconsin Experience” courses, taught by outstanding instructors with remote lectures, but with both in-person and remote small-group discussions. One of the courses, “Forward: Pandemic, Resilience and the Wisconsin Idea,” will focus on the medical, economic, and social impacts related to pandemics. The other course, “Purposeful Action: Parkland, Protest and You,” will focus on the ways in which tragedies can generate action and change. The course will utilize the university’s Go Big Read book, “Parkland: Birth of a Movement, about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, but will branch out to talk about other examples where tragic or unjust events generate political action, such as racial justice movements. 

Departments, with guidance from their respective deans offices, will determine the curriculum they will offer this fall and whether their courses will be offered remotely, in person or both. Schools and colleges, in consultation with their departments, will work with individual instructors who may have scheduling constraints or health limitations that require some adaptation.

Housing and Dining 

The university intends to operate all of its residence halls in the fall, with enhanced safety protocols for shared spaces. Strategies are being evaluated to reduce overall density while still offering a space to as many students as possible. Most rooms will have two residents. To facilitate physical distancing, lounge areas will be rearranged and some common spaces closed. 

All students and staff in the residence halls will be tested for the virus regularly. The university is pursuing a testing method that would make collecting samples simple and easy and not involve a deep nasal swab. 

To reduce the number of people entering and exiting residence halls this fall, the university will limit access to residents only; no guests will be allowed. This policy also will apply to all campus dining facilities operated by University Housing, including Gordon Dining & Event Center and Four Lakes Market inside Dejope Residence Hall. Access will be limited to Housing residents and Housing staff only and will not be available to the general public, to students living off campus, or to faculty and staff not working in Housing. 

 While dine-in service will be available to University Housing residents at these dining facilities, an emphasis will be placed on grab-and-go options. Dining halls will have seating, though with physical distancing and less density. 

Workplace Plans 

Over the summer, we will be doing a phased reopening of many areas of campus, including labs as well as workspaces. To protect employees, work on campus will operate differently than in the past. 

All employees will need to follow the health guidelines laid out above. They will be expected to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces. Those in shared offices will be required to rearrange the workspace to ensure better physical distancing. Everyone will be asked to follow cleanliness protocols and to self-monitor for symptoms. 

In order to reduce density in workplaces, work units will evaluate the best mix of in-person work versus telecommuting. In some cases, staggered hours will help reduce the number of employees in the workplace at any given time. For now, employees working remotely should continue to do so. Further guidance on returning to work will be provided in later messages. 

The university will work with staff who are at heightened risk of infection. If at all possible, the university will make reasonable accommodations that allow these employees to work in a lower-risk environment.

Still to Come 

More detailed information relating to operations this fall will be coming as our planning process moves forward. For instance, the university is in the process of evaluating its approach to various student life activities, including the Wisconsin Union, health care, student organizations, recreation programs and athletic events. 

Additional information will be provided to the campus community as plans are finalized. The “Smart Restart” website also will be continuously updated. Questions can be sent to or call Campus and Visitor Relations at 608-263-2400. 

For additional information on how the university has responded to the coronavirus, please see the COVID-19 website.

Tags: covid-19