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.”
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!”
“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.