One year later: UWEC community reflects on COVID-19’s impact

Blugolds are hopeful that normalcy will be possible soon

Bri+Keller+was+a+freshman+when+in-person+classes+were+suspended+last+year+in+March%2C+and+she+said+she+still+finds+it+difficult+to+socialize+and+connect+with+others.+

Ta'Leah Van Sistine

Bri Keller was a freshman when in-person classes were suspended last year in March, and she said she still finds it difficult to socialize and connect with others.

When the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire suspended in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020, Bri Keller — who was a freshman at the time — felt like she was just starting to establish herself and become more social. 

“When we were told we had to go home, my mind was filled with relief but also a feeling of heartbreak,” Keller said recently.

Keller said she struggles with anxiety, so it can be hard for her to make friends.

“I was in good with my friend group, and it really sucked getting ripped out of that,” Keller said.

Keller said she is still struggling a year later. She found it hard to come back to college because she didn’t get to spend as much time with her friends due to classes being online — it was difficult to socialize again. 

Now, the UW-Eau Claire community is reflecting on the challenges COVID-19 inflicted, the strengths revealed and what instruction might look like moving forward.

University officials are hopeful and planning for things on campus to go back to “normal” in the fall, but students are skeptical of how “normal” the semester will truly be.

Being a student during a pandemic

Students at UW-Eau Claire have dealt with a variety of struggles over the past year. They are immunocompromised, had COVID-19 or struggled with online learning. 

Anna Kuhn, a third-year student, is immunocompromised, which requires her to be on alert at all times.

Being immunocompromised leaves Kuhn feeling stressed when she hears about and sees the actions of those around her.

“When I see someone in class not wearing their mask properly, it really stresses me out,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said just hearing people talk about how they went out over the weekend is a scary thing for her, and it takes away from her learning.

“My health is so unstable, I don’t know if I could be hospitalized just by sitting next to these people,” Kuhn said. 

Kuhn has been extra cautious because of this fact and has lost a number of friendships because some people say she is “too cautious.”

“I don’t really want to hang out with friends if I know they haven’t been safe,” Kuhn said. “I have a few people who are not speaking to me right now because I refuse to hang out with them.”

While some people may think this line of thought is “too cautious,” people who have seen the worst of COVID-19 said they know first-hand the consequences of not being cautious enough.

Haley Bradley is a student at UW-Eau Claire who has seen the realities of COVID-19 on the frontlines as a health care worker.

Bradley has spent a lot of time over the course of the past year in COVID-19 observation units.

The job has had a significant impact on Bradley, as she has been in hospital wings that have had to quarantine many times, and some of her patients have died due to COVID-19.

“The most significant thing for me was hearing that several patients I knew, and had worked with previously in the hospice unit, had died after getting COVID-19,” Bradley said.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James C. Schmidt said he is not aware of any faculty, staff or students who have died from COVID-19. There are also no deaths reported on the COVID-19 dashboard.

While there have been no student-pandemic deaths according to the COVID-19 dashboard, at least 1,096 students have contracted it, including Katrina Berg.

Berg tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 1 and immediately felt guilty upon learning of her diagnosis.

“I don’t see many people, so my list of contacts was short, but there were still people on it,” Berg said. “The guilt of that was almost worse than any symptoms I experienced.”

Berg’s symptoms were mild; however, her mental health declined as she struggled with completing her classes online. 

Many Blugolds have struggled to adjust to online learning during the pandemic. It has been especially tough for people in more hands-on majors who rely on in-person meetings to learn.

This was the case for theatre students Robin Lentine and Christopher Lindquist.

Lentine said that the transition to online might’ve been easy for some majors but not for those in the arts.

Robin Lentine, a theater student, had to get creative while completing her class virtually. (Submitted)

“I was in a theatre movement class that quickly turned into home movement,” Lentine said. On top of that, Lentine said their classes had to be completely restructured and a production they were a part of was shutdown.

“Zoom theatre is kind of garbage to work on and produce,” Lentine said. “I definitely didn’t learn the ideal way, but I did learn.”

Lindquist said he misses the hands-on experiences that come along with being a theatre major, such as working on productions.

“My professors tried to give us the chances they can offer us in an online format, but it’s just not the same,” Lindquist said. “It’s been really challenging.”

University leaders reflect on an unprecedented year

When UW-Eau Claire required students to wear face coverings on campus, the chancellor said he believed students would be compliant with the mandate.

“I knew if 80% of the students were embracing this, the other 20% would come along, frankly just because there’s peer pressure,” Schmidt said. 

He said there might be Blugolds who don’t believe COVID-19 is a dangerous virus, but they ultimately believe in being a part of a community where standards should be followed.

“Do I believe every student has faithfully taken their temperature? No. Have I faithfully taken my temperature every single day? No,” Schmidt said. “But what it forces you to do, even if you’re not, it makes you take a mental inventory of how you’re feeling.”

Although the year has seemed long, Kim Frodl, the medical director at Student Health Service, said UW-Eau Claire can now shift efforts toward obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine and getting people vaccinated.

Frodl said it’s important people don’t let their guard down because the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t  an “end-all solution.”

She said she recognizes why students are becoming “fatigued” with COVID-19 safety precautions, but it’s “really reassuring” they are still following recommendations.

From a financial standpoint, Legislative and Community Relations Liaison Jake Wrasse said UW-Eau Claire expects a total revenue loss of $20.8 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for losses throughout the past year and estimated losses through the fall 2021 semester.

UW-Eau Claire also expects to spend $28 million on COVID-19-related expenditures, and this number includes actual expenses throughout the past year and planned expenses through the fall 2021 semester, Wrasse said. Overall, the $20.8 million lost and the $28 million spent accounts for about 21% of UW-Eau Claire’s $230 million fiscal year budget for the 2020-21 academic year, which includes all federal student aid the university distributes. 

However, $38.5 million in federal funds have been allocated to UW-Eau Claire to help offset these losses, which leaves a $10.3 million deficit that Wrasse said will be covered by institutional reserves and future Federal Emergency Management Agency claim reimbursement payments.

Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Grace Crickette said lost revenue includes refunds for housing, meal plans, parking and recreation that were distributed to students last year when they were sent home. 

Students sit at socially distanced tables in the Davies Student Center. Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Grace Crickette said the cost of labor for removing tables from Davies was another expense the university had this past year. (Ta’Leah Van Sistine)

According to the enrollment factbook, the total number of enrolled students at UW-Eau Claire dropped from 10,729 in the fall 2019 semester to 10,503 in the fall 2020 semester, which Crickette said also contributed to the financial losses the university experienced. 

“We had to have financial rigor and discipline,” Crickette said, regarding this past year and the furloughs and pay cuts that university employees endured. “We’re fortunate that we are receiving federal funding to help mitigate losses we had.”

Looking to the Fall 2021 semester

In reflecting on the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chancellor Schmidt said this past year “wasn’t perfect.”

Schmidt said online and hybrid courses did not work well for some students, resulting in “a record number of A’s and a record number of F’s” at the fall 2020 midterm point

However, Schmidt said UW-Eau Claire faculty, staff and students made this academic year possible.

On March 9, Schmidt sent an email to students with updates about what to expect for the upcoming fall 2021 semester, including the following:

  • “A return to in-person classroom and lab instruction at regular capacity. About 85% of our classes will again be offered in person
  • Music, theater and athletic activities open to fans and supporters
  • Residence hall living as before with programs and recreational activities that bring students together
  • Dining selections as they were before the pandemic with increased seating at all our dining facilities
  • Forums, events and student organizations active across campus”

Schmidt said it was more of “a practical decision” to tell the campus community that they could expect a more traditional fall semester because plans needed to be made about how courses would be listed in the registration system. 

Referencing President Biden’s plan to have all Americans eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, Schmidt said a more traditional fall semester seems possible.

“If that’s the plan, we should be able to have a fully engaged school year,” Schmidt said. 

UW-Eau Claire will continue to follow the advice of experts and observe COVID-19 protocols in other countries, but Schmidt said prospects for study abroad and the National Student Exchange programs in the fall look hopeful as well. Schmidt said a decision regarding fall study abroad programs will take place no later than June.

Although there is hopeful news for the fall semester, Schmidt said it’s important students continue to follow COVID-19 protocol.

“I’m starting to see pictures of big outside gatherings,” Schmidt said. “Things are going to be engaging in September, but it’s still March. I would hate to say that some vulnerable person caught this because we weren’t paying attention.”

Students are optimistic that Schmidt’s plans will move forward; however, students like Robin Lentine are unsure what will happen in the fall.

“I want to hope that we’ll squish this and things are going to be OK,” Lentine said. “I just don’t see that as something that’s going to happen at least in the next four or five months.”