UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson said at a UW-Whitewater town hall Thursday if students don’t wear masks or practice social distancing, it’s possible “we then would not be able to finish the semester.”

But Thompson added he did not think that would happen in Whitewater, striking a tone sharply different from what UW-W Interim Chancellor Greg Cook shared the night before at a city council meeting.

“We want you to have a tremendous experience, students. We also want you to understand that this is a very serious time with the coronavirus,” Thompson said. “And if you, of course, do not wear your masks, if you don’t socially distance yourself, there is the possibility that, of course, we then would not be able to finish the semester.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen on Whitewater’s campus because everybody is dedicated the same way I am—to make sure that the students are safe and that the teachers, the professors and all the instructors are able to make sure that they can do their job,” he continued.

UW System president feels ‘very strongly’ about opening campuses during COVID-19

On Wednesday night, Cook asked Whitewater City Council members to vote in favor of an ordinance that would have placed restrictions on mass indoor and outdoor gatherings—but the council rejected the proposal.

Cook also said UW-W was “not far behind” UW-Madison, which announced its move to have all classes be virtual for two weeks because of rising COVID-19 cases.

But Cook or other administrators did not make any indications Thursday that the campus was close to shutting down or that the university would need to move soon to all virtual classes.

The number of student COVID-19 cases reported to the university this week was at 69 as of Thursday morning, up from 44 positive tests reported Wednesday for the week so far. That’s compared to 51 student cases last week.

In asking the council to support the mass-gathering ordinance that eventually did not pass, Cook said the university needed help finding “teeth” in their action against students who were holding large parties on private property.

Otherwise, he said, the university, rental properties and local businesses will be “in jeopardy” if UW-W has to hold all classes virtually.

“These numbers are skyrocketing, and they’re becoming very alarming,” Cook said Wednesday. “We need to do everything we can to hold students accountable.”

Thompson gave an uplifting introduction to UW-W’s virtual town hall event, when he also thanked Cook for opening the campus, which is holding some in-person classes.

UW-Whitewater chancellor on paid leave for investigation into complaint

Cook is in the position for Dwight Watson, who is on paid leave for an investigation into an unspecified complaint.

Thursday’s hourlong town hall was a chance for Cook and the rest of the chancellor’s cabinet to respond to questions, including on these topics:

Watson’s investigation: Cook said “we don’t know at this time what the timeline will be,” regarding when others will learn more about Watson’s investigation or its outcome.

He asked for everyone to avoid speculation because investigations into a chancellor, “could be (about) anything under the sun.”

Testing for university employees: When asked why the university was providing testing for students and not employees, Cook said that came down to requirements within the funding UW-W received. He said the university provides health insurance to employees, and they should seek testing through their medical providers.

No threshold: Cook said there is no one number that is a marker for the university to automatically shut down. He said they rely on a “holistic” analysis of data, such as case counts, where cases are clustered and the capacity of isolation spaces.