UW-Madison insignia

An old UW-Madison "W" insignia on Agricultural Hall in Madison, Wis. Phil Roeder (CC BY)

Some Wisconsin universities are requiring students and employees to sign pledges acknowledging they'll do their part to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

Some of the pledges come with catchy names, like the "Fly Right Pledge" or the "Pioneer Promise." They all essentially seek the same assurances that students — and in some cases employees — will commit to wearing face masks, maintaining safe distances and thoroughly washing their hands while on campus.

Administrators say the pledges are not attempts to release universities from liability if students or employees get COVID-19 while on campus during the pandemic.

At University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, students have until Sept. 4 to pledge that they will record their daily temperature using a smartphone app, wash their hands, follow social distancing guidelines on campus and wear a face mask indoors and outside in crowded spaces.

During an interview with WPR on July 29, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Jim Schmidt said that preventing COVID-19 outbreaks and maintaining in-person classes this fall will require a joint effort from students, employees and administration. But Schmidt acknowledged the recommendations in the pledge are not enforceable when students leave campus.

"We all know you can drive through various neighborhoods and find large groups of students congregating around a fire pit or socializing," said Schmidt "And, you know, we're frankly hoping that we can do some things to curb that. We know some of it will happen. But if they do pick up the virus, we want to know about it. We want to isolate them and keep them from spreading it to other students or other faculty and staff."

A spokesman for UW-Eau Claire said more than 2,500 students signed the pledge within 36 hours of it being posted on the campus website. He said that works out to around 25 percent of the student body, although the administration expects the majority of students to sign it before arriving to campus. The spokesman said the pledge is mandatory for students, and those who do not sign will be contacted by the dean of students' office.

In order to get access to textbooks, University of Wisconsin-Platteville students will be required to sign the "Pioneer Promise." Campus spokesman Paul Erickson said the pledge isn't so much about enforcement as it is about building a climate on campus in the hopes of preventing outbreaks.

"What we're trying to do at UW-Platteville is build a culture of respect and making sure that wherever you are, you're going to be encouraged by your classmates to put on the mask and to have a practice of social distancing, (washing) your hands," said Erickson. "You know, those kinds of things."

Some campuses like University of Wisconsin-Green Bay are using pledges to cap off online training for students outlining the steps they can take to keep outbreaks at bay. Assistant Vice Chancellor of Policy and Compliance Christopher Paquet said the goal is to ensure each student understands "the provisions of getting campus access." He said employees have also been given a document outlining the same provisions showing what they'll have to do to continue to work on campus.

"And one of the pieces we're trying to stress to both our students and our employees is that this is about yourself," said Paquet. "But it's also about everybody. We want to make sure that this operation can keep going in the way that we want it to keep going."

Aside from the campuses in Eau Claire, Green Bay and Platteville, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and University of Wisconsin-Madison have introduced required pledges for students too.

University of Wisconsin-Superior, University of Wisconsin-Parkside and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee officials said they're working on pledges or training for students. Communications staff at UW-River Falls and UW-Stout said those campuses will not require students to sign pledges but will provide educational materials outlining best practices on masks, distances and hygiene.

Kathy Dolan is a political science professor at UW-Milwaukee and chair of the university committee of the campus faculty senate. She said the campus cannot control what employees or students do when they leave campus, but the hope is that training and pledges will help safety policies "become cultural norms" that people abide by.

"So, I don't know that it guarantees that everyone will do absolutely everything on the list every single day," said Dolan. "But I think it at least assures the university that the communication is getting through, that people acknowledge the ways in which fall will be different. And I guess I know I'm going to start the semester by believing that everybody intends to do the right thing and wants to do the right thing. We all want a successful semester."

Marquette University, the state's largest private campus, is also requiring all students to take online COVID-19 education and sign a pledge to promote health and safety practices this fall. A campus announcement sent to students on Wednesday told students that "without this commitment, the university may have to scale back the number of people on campus or move to a fully online environment as we did this spring."

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2020, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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