Upate: In a related development Washington State University announced today that all undergraduate classes at its Pullman campus would be online for in the fall 2020. “Given the alarming rise in the number of COVID‑19 cases regionally and nationally, all undergraduate courses at WSU Pullman will be delivered at a distance and will be completed remotely, with extremely limited exceptions for in‑person instruction. Information regarding WSU Pullman graduate coursework and instructional delivery methods will be announced by August 1.” WWU must follow and cancel on campus courses for the fall 2020.
On Monday evening (July 21st) at the Bellingham City Council meeting, council member Lisa Anderson brought up the topic about which I wrote to the mayor, the county executive, the city and county councils, and the Whatcom Health Department director two weeks ago, i.e., the planned return of students to the WWU campus. I had NO response from the city or the county to my initial email entreaty:
“Seth and Satpal,
[Here] is an article with the title as above [WWU Campus is Closed And Should Stay That Way] that I published July 6th on NWCitizen. I ask that you read and consider it carefully.
best way to return Whatcom County to a pre-Phase I status. Moreover, has anyone looked at 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. Costs for infection spread will be foisted on our families in the way of medical bills and associated future ill health. Some of those costs would be difficult to calculate but they are, nevertheless, there. Health department, police, emergency and medical services will face additional burdens. For decades the city, and to a lesser extent the county, has born the costs of a sizeable student presence, especially in the area of housing. For that our citizens have paid dearly in terms of housing shortages and rising rental costs.
We should be in the forefront of confronting this pandemic and forge our own path. Everything I have read about this virus over the past 4 months points to shutting down vectors of infection as the most effective means of combating it. Bringing students back to Bellingham and Whatcom County would be a monumental disaster.”
At the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) on July 15th, I again brought up the problem of thousands of WWU students returning to Bellingham and to campus but my concerns were met by the MNAC reps with a collective yawn. Only one neighborhood representative understood the problem I was describing.
The faculty and student body were officially notified this week that would begin again for the fall session, but the on-campus sessions would end at the Thanksgiving holiday and at that time the campus would again be closed. “…all WWU classes will be moved to remote/online modality after the Thanksgiving break this coming fall” according to a message on Western Today.
“More than (about 20 percent of the total number of class offerings), including more than 250 classes for first-year students, have been approved for face-to-face instruction for Fall, and each section had to pass a rigorous screening process about number of students, space size, and more. In addition, every lecture area will be cleaned and disinfected after each class is finished.”
Sure, but what happens after the students leave the campus and circulate in town? I later received the following from Paul Cocke, Director of University Communications,
“…Please note that we are fully aware of how fluid the situation is with the pandemic and are closely monitoring health and safety guidance as that evolves. Our hybrid model for fall is based on Whatcom County being in the governor’s Phase III by late September, and our contingency planning includes a potential pivot to fully online in fall if Whatcom County and most of the state has not moved out of Phase II by the start of fall quarter.”
We have been doing so well that the governor has already delayed by two weeks any further consideration of moving from current phases of opening to a more open phase. WA is in such poor shape that it is on a list of “31 states [whose residents] must now quarantine for 14 days when arriving in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as dozens of states experience rising positive COVID-19 rates.”
“Pivoting” in September means that many, if not most, students will have already arrived in Bellingham. Yes, the campus might be closed but all the young scholars will be in their city residences potentially having brought the virus back from their homes across the state or, worse yet, vacation spots across the country or around the globe. Then it will be too late. As I said in my original plea to the mayor and county executive, any ill effects of the return to campus will be socialized to the general population of the city and county. All this to have … not even considering the very real possibility of a second wave (we are still in the first!) of COVID-19 and the rapidly growing number of youths 20-45 who are now becoming infected and some very badly so.
At the MNAC meeting when I mentioned the younger cohort of which university students are a part, I was roundly chastised by one representative who said I was dismissing/dissing this younger generation. The fact is, not only is this age group becoming more susceptible to the virus at an alarming rate, science tells us that during adolescence and until age 25 the capacity for assessing risk and adjusting behavior is still in the developmental stage. Risks associated with non-adherence to behavior necessary to contain COVID-19 are not fully perceived. This is not blaming, it is recognizing the limitations inherent in having thousands of generally unsupervised youth in this category return to the university campuses, dormitory life, and other congregate living arrangements. To wit:
“One of the biggest differences researchers have found between adults and adolescents is the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain is still developing in teens and doesn’t complete its growth until approximately early to mid 20’s. The prefrontal cortex performs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, necessities for being an adult. Without the fully development prefrontal cortex, a teen might make poor decisions and lack the ability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.” (quote source here)
A clearly worried and at risk friend wrote to me this week,
“Will students be tested for COVID before returning to campus? Will they receive periodic testing? What are the dorms doing differently? Cafeterias? Will there be a university-specific health education program or intervention to assure maximum preventative measures? Perhaps have students attend an online COVID prevention course, take a online test and receive a certificate or “pledge to stay safe” - much like the Food Safety online exams and certificates. Rules for interaction on campus during “free time” and also off campus. Community stewardship. Perhaps a program of community service like help out at Food Bank, volunteer for contact tracing phone banks, help at the testing center which uses volunteers, or work in community gardens and parks which have been neglected because many regular volunteers like old people are quarantined.”
We do not have to have a campus open in September. There is time to reverse this decision to return to campus. Reverse it now.