UWEC

Masked UW-Eau Claire students walk between classes this week.

EAU CLAIRE — Rachel Hamele is bored.

The second-year UW-Eau Claire student is one of 181 students quarantined, as of Tuesday, in one of the university’s residence halls.

But Hamele is making the best of it: She’s following along in her classes online, watching “a lot of Netflix” and posting a joking tutorial on washing her laundry with water, soap and her dorm room’s garbage can.

“The only thing I wish I could change is going outside,” Hamele joked over video chat from her dorm room.

Hamele, of Fort Atkinson, may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the bathroom of her residence hall, Towers Hall North, she said. As of Tuesday, Hamele wasn’t experiencing any symptoms of the virus.

In the second week of classes, several UW-Eau Claire students told the Leader-Telegram they were unsure and worried about the fate of in-person classes at UW-Eau Claire.

The university announced Sunday that 69 students had tested positive for the respiratory virus, and 17 of them lived on-campus. Six of the 17 may have interacted with other people in their residence halls, according to the university. So 184 students in those halls, including Hamele, were quarantined.

On Tuesday, another eight students tested positive, said Michael Knuth, UW-Eau Claire associate director of marketing and communications.

Eleven students are in isolation and 181 quarantined as of Tuesday, Knuth said, and 23 rooms in Putnam Hall — the university-designated housing building for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation — are occupied.

Quarantine experience

The university alerted Hamele to the possible exposure with an email on Sunday, she said, and her wing in Towers Hall North began their two-week quarantine.

Students in quarantine “may have had contact” with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, the university has said. Isolation is a different situation, aimed at students who are symptomatic and waiting for test results, or who have already tested positive.

While in quarantine, Hamele hasn’t socialized outside her room; students aren’t leaving except to get tested for the virus, to wash dishes or to use the bathroom, Hamele said.

The university is delivering meals and books to students in quarantine and isolation, it said in a news release Sunday. Residential life staffers are checking on students daily, and recording their temperature and symptoms daily on The Blugold Protocol app, said Quincy Chapman, director of Housing and Residence Life, in the news release.

Hamele reached out to professors for directions on handling her classes — which started just last week — but with different professors for each class, she said, it’s been overwhelming.

“In my geography class, half are in-person in Schofield Auditorium, other half are watching online,” Hamele said. “Each class has a different format. It’s crazy to try and understand. It’s gonna take a while.”

As of Tuesday, nearly 1,400 people had signed a student petition on Change.org, asking the university to move all fall classes online.

UW-Eau Claire student Maddy Lunde of Stoughton started the petition.

“I started hearing a lot of concern from my fellow students about whether or not the circumstances were safe,” Lunde said Tuesday in a message to the Leader-Telegram.

Lunde began the petition before the university released its reopening plan, the Blugold Flight Plan, in early August.

According to the plan, students must wear masks at all times in classrooms, campus buildings, communal spaces in residence halls and outdoors if they can’t be 6 feet apart from each other. Classrooms were rearranged to maintain 6 feet of space between students, and the university told students to wash their hands frequently and monitor their symptoms daily.

Students also signed the Fly Right Pledge, Knuth said. The university required students to sign the pledge, it said in early August, obligating them to monitor symptoms, follow social distancing guidelines, participate in testing and contact tracing and not attend social gatherings that are larger than buildings’ occupancy limits. If students don’t follow the pledge, according to the pledge document, they can be disciplined by the university, lose access to its online systems or be asked to leave the university altogether.

“We are continuing to encourage physical distancing and the wearing of masks on campus and in the community, and we want to thank all the students who have responded positively to our Blugold Flight Plan,” Knuth said in an email. “We are keeping our classrooms and residence halls on campus clean and safe, and we begin extensive antigen testing for thousands of students on campus this week.”

Lunde said she’s still worried about outbreaks on campus.

“I honestly have no issue with having to social distance, wear a mask at all times, and not engage in behavior like parties or large gatherings,” she said of the plan. “My main issue lies with the fact that there could be an outbreak even if all students were as careful as possible, and it’s almost as if the university is taking no responsibility for bringing us back during a high chance of said outbreak.”

The university has said it plans to publish a public dashboard this week, which is slated to include the number of students who have tested positive on campus and the total number of students tested.

Students uncertain

Students said they’re bracing for a semester of quarantine alerts and uncertainty.

“I was seriously hoping for in person classes this semester because last semester was awful,” said UW-Eau Claire junior Sarah Schumacher of Two Rivers, who lives off-campus. “But I don’t think it’s going to last, because students just aren’t going to follow the rules.”

The university decided to have in-person, online and hybrid classes this semester, and a decision to move all classes online “would be made by the university with the support of the UW System,” Knuth said Tuesday, noting that the university is working with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Hamele said she’s preparing for long stays in her dorm room for the rest of the semester. Her family is planning to schedule grocery deliveries to her room so she has more food options.

Hamele said she’s undecided if she believes the university should move all its fall classes online versus keeping face-to-face classes open. Her reasons: More students and staffers would stay employed and professors wouldn’t have to make a painstaking curriculum transition to online, she said.

“I’ve been conflicted, but I understand … some people do need on-campus jobs to sustain themselves, just like I do,” Hamele said. “They’re doing the best they can. This is new for everyone.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the Leader-Telegram's education and health reporter. She's worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter at @sarahaseifert.