College campuses are now opening across a nation that is still reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of these openings are not good, as more and more stories surface about initial openings of universities only to have them close the doors weeks later as new infections spike. Locally, Whatcom County, the home of the now shut Western Washington University (WWU), is in a delicate situation with the virus. While the county seems to be holding its own in keeping new infections down while ramping up testing, we are not out of the woods. Delicate balances do not need a shove. Even the return of only a few thousand students in September would be a frightening prospect given the experiences elsewhere. We do not need to experiment. Not one death would make the re-opening of WWU worthwhile.
In Bellingham, WWU President Sabah Randhawa and his administration have apparently listened to the experts and have kept foremost in mind the health and safety of students, professors, staff and all those living in Bellingham.
To that end, in a recent letter to the student body, Dr. Randhawa made this plea:
“If you can stay at your permanent residence during this current phase of the COVID‑19 outbreak, we strongly encourage you to consider progressing toward your degree from home.”
However, he continued:
”Given the alarming rise in the number of cases regionally and nationally, we have made the difficult decision – along with many other institutions in Washington and across the nation – to review our face-to-face classes for fall and move most of them to a remote environment, with limited exceptions for some experiential courses that can be taught safely in-person, such as applied performance classes and some hands-on labs. We now expect to offer 8-10% of our classes in person during the fall quarter.”
Subsequent to that communication with the students, the university announced it will definitely remain at its current operating Level 2 (does not directly tie to the state’s phasing levels ) for the fall session. You can review the Level 2, Co-Curricular Gatherings Guidance here. A limit of five is placed on these gatherings, however, as we have seen with the population at large over the past several months, give an inch and a mile is taken.
Although according to an article in the Bellingham Herald on August 16th, Whatcom County has seen a recent decrease in the number of new COVID-19 cases, Whatcom County Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach said a number of factors have likely played a role.
“Because this is a global event, things can change, and we’re certainly not out of the woods yet,” Lautenbach said during an online press conference Tuesday, Aug. 18. “One single, large event could cause another spike in cases, but we have been encouraged by what we have seen.”
Such is the delicate balance I spoke of above. A “large event” need not be characterized as a gathering of many people in the space of a few hours, such as at a concert or a party. A university re-opening, in and of itself, constitutes a large event. To wit:
“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is ending in-person instruction for undergrads just a week after reopening, after dozens of students living in dorms and a fraternity house tested positive for coronavirus. UNC is hardly the only institution experiencing an uptick in infections within days of students returning to campus. Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., reported a cluster of 46 confirmed cases of COVID-19 through mandatory entry testing. Officials said 482 people have been tested and many still await their results. At Oklahoma State University, a sorority house is under quarantine after reporting 23 cases.” Politico
Fully one third (4,630) of the WWU student body comes from King County, one of the hardest hit in Washington. This increases the chances for returning students to bear “gifts of virus that keep giving.” Twelve percent of the student body comes from outside the state. Who knows from where? And what were the travel habits of these individuals over the summer? All this gives me pause.
WWU has plans to clean facilities and equipment on campus but does not yet have a plan for testing those who may return to campus to attend the small number of classes or to occupy the dormitory space offered by the university. I contacted WWU and was told the testing policy is not yet finalized and I would be informed of the timing. Not sure about you, the reader, but I want to know very, very soon about testing, contact tracing and isolation and quarantine accommodations at WWU. Additionally, the university was not yet able to give me the “limited number” of students expected to return to campus or the number of students who will be in the dormitories.
As was said in a 21 August editorial in the student newspaper of Notre Dame, Holy Cross and St. Mary’s: “Don’t make us write obituaries.”
[See the Fall 2020 Academic Plan Review below for additional, more detailed information about the background of WWU’s planning.]