Local Universities Make Tough Decisions to Get Students Back on Campus

Questions abound as universities head back to class in earnest for the first time in the COVID era.

Sarah Kizuk is a Ph.D. candidate at Marquette University, specializing in social and political philosophy, and she’s not afraid to lie down on the ground next to a cardboard tombstone outside Zilber Hall to protest working conditions.

She and other members of the Marquette Academic Workers Union, an organization of grad and adjunct instructors, staged the “die-in” in August 2020 outside the school’s administration headquarters to protest the teaching of in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As lower-rung academics, she says, the university had assigned them, as usual, to a large number of freshman classes, which the school had kept partially in-person, partially online, to preserve an engaging “freshman experience.”

This fall, she’s teaching a class on faith and social justice, and she’s “very excited to see students” yet also nervous about COVID, despite being vaccinated. Still, Kizuk is more confident than this time last year in part due to Marquette’s COVID strategy for the new school year, probably the most aggressive in the area: All students must either show proof of vaccination or secure an exemption. Those who failed to get either by Aug. 1 were to be booted from their fall classes, which will otherwise return to normal. At that deadline, more than 85% of students were vaccinated.

“Vaccination … aligns with our Catholic, Jesuit mission,” says university spokeswoman Lynn Griffith, “protecting the health and well-being of our community.”


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According to the CDC, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are 90% or more effective at warding off the disease and, in so-called “breakthrough” cases, useful at preventing severe symptoms and hospitalization.

Reopening has come as a relief to Marquette instructors and faculty. Last year, Kizuk says, many seesawed between administering hybrid classes – and watching with dread as students got sick – and moving instruction fully online, which was cumbersome. Over time, she says, both staff and students became exhausted with online learning.

In a survey of seven other area universities, Milwaukee Magazine found that while schools generally had plans to return to normal, in-person classes this fall, they also had no plans to require vaccination. Most lacked reliable data on what percentage of students had been vaccinated, or cited a low figure. Carroll University in Waukesha cited the largest: 52% of undergrads. (For comparison, 57.1% of Milwaukee County’s residents 16 or older were fully vaccinated as of late July.)

Milwaukee School of Engineering has opted against a campus-wide vaccine mandate and will require all unvaccinated students to wear a mask, unlike Marquette, which is only strongly encouraging them.

“We ended last year in a really good place,” with a low number of cases, says Vice President of Academics Eric Baumgartner. “If things start to go not favorable, there is a plan we can run right back to,” from the 2020-21 school year.

“I don’t want to have a school that’s authoritarian and checking everyone all the time, but I do think it would be to everyone’s interest for Marquette to be a little more heavy-handed.”


Like many schools, MSOE has branded the new school year in defiant terms: For it, this will be “The Raider Return.” Unlike other schools, MSOE maintains an online dashboard showing the percentage of students who have reported their vaccination: 37% as of July, along with 78% of faculty.

MSOE hopes that as more students prepare to return to campus, its internal figures will grow to reach 70% or 80% for students.

That’s the case for UWM, too – the one public school in MilMag’s survey. It’s planning, in part, to vaccinate students once they arrive on campus, through a community vaccination clinic there, in operation since March. And in July, the UW System announced an incentive program: Vaccinated students at UW universities that reach a 70% vaccination rate would be eligible for one of 70 scholarships worth $7,000 each. (UW-Madison, which expects to have some 80% of its students vaccinated, is excluded from the program.) Right then, UWM’s plan otherwise looked like those at many other area schools: Classes would return to normal without a vaccine mandate; social distancing would be encouraged but not required; and only the unvaccinated would have to wear masks.

Then a July email outlining the guidelines alarmed a number of faculty, according to Joel Berkowitz, director of the Center for Jewish Studies. “I fear an outbreak,” he says, “that variants are going to come to us, and we’re not going to be protected.” And in late July, the CDC reversed course on COVID guidelines for schools, once again recommending that all teachers and students wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Shortly thereafter, UWM leaders announced a widespread mask mandate for the coming school year, along with mandatory weekly testing for unvaccinated students and staff.

While making these decisions, UWM, like other area universities, relied on sparse, unreliable data as to how many students had received the vaccine. In UWM’s case, a survey conducted at the end of the last school year had such a low return rate, “We do not have a reliable figure for the portion of students who were vaccinated,” says spokeswoman Michelle Johnson.

Mount Mary University, dealing with a similar paucity of data, plans to require all students to wear masks inside until more students have self-reported that they are vaccinated. The school is also halving the old 6-foot social distancing requirement in classes to 3 feet for the time being.

Also hoping to amp up its vaccine data, Cardinal Stritch University on the North Shore said in July it was building a reporting system for vaccines and planned to require them for all students living in campus residence halls.

Only one of the schools surveyed, Alverno College, said it had no data on students and staff vaccinations and no plans to collect it. After press time, the school announced a requirement for all students, faculty and staff to receive vaccinations by Nov. 1, and for the same to wear masks in all indoor, public spaces on campus.

Like Berkowitz, Sarah Kizuk worries about “the things we don’t know,” such as new variants. “I don’t want to have a school that’s authoritarian and checking everyone all the time, but I do think it would be to everyone’s interest for Marquette to be a little more heavy-handed.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.