WWU Campus is Closed And Should Stay That Way

Any substantial number of the student body at Western Washington University who physically return to campus in the fall will constitute a reverse Spring Break, an infectious phenomenon verified after college students, who were in Florida for that very fest, returned to their home towns or universities, dragging the COVID-19 virus with them. (“College Student Contribution to Local COVID-19 Spread: Evidence from University Spring Break Timing” and “New Study: College Spring Break Helped Spread The Coronavirus”) This seems to be the present plan for WWU in Bellingham: thousands of students arriving from all over the state of Washington, especially from hotspot eastern counties and other states across the land that are now drowning in a pandemic resurgence.

Worse yet, the annual creation of what Bellingham has allowed for decades, illegal rooming houses, each with 5-10 or more young tenants, will constitute hundreds of student congregate living arrangements known for being highly effective vectors for the spread of COVID-19. Our own previous experience with COVID-19-related infection and death in congregate facilities here in Bellingham should be warning enough. Reports now indicate that it is not only the old who are vulnerable but the young (20-45) whose hospitalizations and deaths are alarming officials across the country. Some of those young people, reports a doctor in Arizona, are coming in requiring oxygen, intubation, and ventilators.

“We even had people in that age group die, unfortunately. So it’s very troubling and it’s very difficult to watch young people die from this disease. It’s horrible.”

And meanwhile in California an LA Times article reports:

“Amid the alarming surge in coronavirus spread, USC [University of Southern California] announced it will no longer bring all undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester and will move to mainly online classes, reversing an earlier decision to welcome students back for a hybrid model.”

22 year old COVID-19 patient
22 year old COVID-19 patient

USC is not the only institution of higher education to realize that opening campuses will likely result in unpredictable and possibly catastrophic surges in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Still, a quick look at colleges on the web indicates that many will use some hybrid system of campus and online classes. This mugwumpian* approach is destined to fail because students, even those taking only online courses, will mosey on over to campus to see pals and girl/boyfriends, become forgetful and revert to youthful insouciance. Online or not, thousands of students will still clog the grocery stores and visit group rental homes in town for weekend parties.

Indicative of the above is a report in a 3 July article in the Seattle Times entitled “A COVID-19 outbreak on UW’s Greek Row hints at how hard it may be to open colleges this fall”:

“As of Friday, 117 students living in 15 fraternity houses this summer have reported testing positive for the virus. The university has confirmed 89 of those cases, along with an additional four students who visited fraternities but didn’t live in them. The numbers are likely to tick upward, since about 1,000 have been tested, including other students who visited the fraternities but didn’t live there.”

Granted, WWU does not suffer under the Greek system, but there are many similar, albeit somewhat smaller, congregate living facilities within the city limits. The massive private dormitories off-campus such as Elevate (formerly Gather) and the Lark (formerly NXNW), with about 1,000 students between them, are nothing more than huge petri dishes during normal times let alone a pandemic. Moreover, come Thanksgiving and then winter break, all will race home in packed cars, buses, trains, and airplanes to give their families the gift that keeps on giving: COVID-19. Then a reverse wave will return to Bellingham bringing the virus from hometowns throughout the state, or from whatever far-flung places the students visit or congregate in the sun.

Several weeks ago, I spoke with a WWU university representative who said they really had no idea how many upper class students would return in the fall to campus or to Bellingham. Freshman registration is already down about 12% and the decline is expected to continue, but that still means well over 2,500 new students will arrive to start school in September. How many will come to live in Bellingham? How many will actually be able to find housing on a campus that has room for approximately 4,000 students? Dormitory distancing will likely halve that number and toss many students into the rental market.

It is the City who must tell WWU under what circumstances it will be acceptable to bring any, even a fraction, of their students back into our community. Would there be mandatory testing before readmission? Would there be periodic re-testing on a schedule? What would dorm life look like? How would public transit be managed? Parties? Large crowds? Would there be courtesy in our community stores and restaurants? What leadership would WWU provide so that Bellingham residents will be safe when thousands of students re-enter? And let us not forget the professors who might, at great risk, have to return to campus because their classes require either lab work or a physical presence, such as for a dance class? (“College campuses are trying to reopen in the fall. The main source of opposition? The faculty”. WWU says it will comply with the governor’s Safe Start Washington phased approach. But where is the public dialogue on this issue? That “safe start” thingy doesn’t appear to be working that well.

There should be a one year hiatus at all universities to help break the back of the viral spread. It sounds harsh, but such a break (like millions of young students took during WWII) is necessary and doable. Make no mistake, this is a worldwide war with an enemy that takes no prisoners, makes no allies, signs no treaties. We are bereft of leadership on the national level so our country cannot even join with others in the fight. Consequently, we must struggle against this virus at local levels with every tool we have, including suspension of university campus openings until at least the academic year 2021-2022. WWU should say to the student body: “STAY HOME!”

In the meantime, all states must push for federal legislation that will forgive all student debt, public and private, what is known as a Debt Jubilee. Economist Dr. Michael Hudson says:

“We may see a power grab creating something much like feudalism. In the United States it’s suggested that for student loans, or for loans to wage-earners collateralized by the debtor promising to pay 10%, 20%, 25% of everything they earn for the rest of their life. This is like a tax, but it’s really a form of debt peonage. It’s a payment much like medieval serfs had to turn over their economic surplus to their landlords. Well, now the wage-earners, small business and even big business in America and in Europe are going to have to turn over even more of their earnings to the financial sector in order to survive.”

The Debt Jubilee must be followed by a variation on the national “GI Bill” to provide student education across the board. We have done it before, for soldiers returning from WWII; the GI Bill provided enough for an education and to live minimally, if not with some level of comfort. We can do it again.

Until then, to fight this virus effectively, campuses must be closed completely, and all courses placed on-line until such a time as a vaccination is found or the pandemic runs its course. This is a war and our lives depend on it.

*Mugwump: One who has his mug on one side of an issue and his wump on the other.

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Comments by Readers

Christopher S Hudson

Jul 06, 2020

Thank you for this article. I couldn’t agree more. Also, thanks for putting Michael Hudson front and center, I have read several of his books and recommend them. His ideas are becoming more mainstream as current neoliberal ideology has fallen on it’s face and turns all of us into debt-serfs.

His discussion of the “debt jubilee” is based on his studies of ancient cultures and how their economies were managed… fascinating stuff.

 

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 06, 2020

Christopher,

Related to Michael?  :-)

Furthermore, what are the costs of having students return to Bellingham in the middle of a pandemic?  Costs related to the return of these individuals will be socialize to the city and the county.  Some of those costs would be difficult to calculate but they are, nevertheless, there.  Health department, police, emergency and medical services would face additional burdens.  For decades the city’s residents have born the cost of student housing with the deformation of the rental market by the presence of students that drive up costs and eat up lower cost housing that might be used by working families with moderat incomes.

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Brian McNitt

Jul 06, 2020

How many additional deaths, and how much additional COVID spread and impact in Bellingham would be acceptable?

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Abe Jacobson

Jul 06, 2020

You put this very clearly. Certainly the frat-boy COVID outbreak at UW erodes our confidence that a mass migration of 14K students back here into congregate living would be a smart move. Apart from prisons or cruise ships, I can think of no more effective a viral spreader.

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 06, 2020

Brian,

None.

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 06, 2020

Abe,

I highly doubt that anywhere near 14,000 would return to campus.  Many courses are going to be given online.  There are professors who have stated that they will not return to campus for a varieyt of reaons most of which, I think, have to do with being at risk themselves or living with a person at risk. 

But even the return of 7,000 would be a monumental error.  We are worried now about getting into Phase 3 of the governors Safe Start program.  With thousands of students returning to town we will likely find ourselves back to pre-Phase 1 status.  This virus will not be managed.  As a bullet pays no mind, nature gives not a shit.

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 07, 2020

 Christopher,

Thanks.  I had run into similar articles as I prepared my own above.  This was a nice summary of the almost total lack of critical thinking even among academics.  It seems mostly to be about MONEY!

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Tim Paxton

Jul 07, 2020

More Covid data is appearing.  If the infection rate may be 10x greater than currently estimated, as is now coming out,  then the death rate amongst the under 45 group then approaches zero.  Students and young staff would possibly be dealing with a fatality risk approaching near zero. 

Most of those who succumb already have morbidities and are over age 70. Like Flu, it mosty affects the sick and elderly, who should probably be more worried than healthy 19 year olds.

A recent article (July 5, 2020)  from the Stanford University disease prevention chairman, an MD.

“The China coronavirus is real but the facts about it have been hidden or contaminated.  For example, a doctor at Stanford reported a couple days ago that the China coronavirus mortality rate for those under the age of 45 is almost 0%.”

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/stanford-doctor-coronavirus-infection-fatality-rate-for-people-under-45-almost-0

Disclosing the updated and actual fatality risk to all age and morbidity groups might be more productive than a mass shut down of the entire University.  Zero per cent sounds pretty good to a college student.  They are immortal anyway.

Adults make decisions based on risk assessment all the time.  Maybe not perfectly, but with the actual low fatality risk for under 45 and new treatments/cures coming out around the world, it would not be a huge risk.

 

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Abe Jacobson

Jul 07, 2020

Then my inference from Tim Paxton’s point is that there needs to be an ironclad mechanism to prevent contact of these college immortals with the older population. Yes, the immortals have very low risk to themselves, but they do also come into contact with older people in the community, like in retail and services, not to mention buses etc.

How is this sequestering of the immortals to be done?

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Dick Conoboy

Jul 07, 2020 Read More...