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Open The WWU Campus In September?  What Then The Toll?

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.

Additionally, bringing students back to campus is the 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 classes online and on campus 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.

This is a decision from a posting dated more than a month ago on the WWU website (bolding mine):

“More than 600 class sections (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 a mere 9 weeks of classes on campus … 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.

Comments by Readers

Steve M. James

Jul 23, 2020

It’s a shame that this discussion tends to get fall  into the “what do you have against students ” retort all too quickly. If we bring in to our community thousands of any people, all at the same time, it is going to have an impact on our ablity to handle this Pandemic. And, the City has a responsibility to plan for such an influx. It has nothing to do with students. It has everything to do with a large number of people (which are known by viruses as vectors) from all over the country, landin in our community at the same time. The University will put together a good plan to keep the campus, students and staff as safe as possible. I have no doubt of that. The question I have to ask is what are the cities plans for when these people leave the campus and come into the community ? We can’t and shouldn’t try to keep them out. We should and must have a plan for them to return to our community safely.


Bernie Housen

Jul 26, 2020

First a disclaimer, I work at WWU, but this posting reflects only my personal opinion regarding this topic. On the WWU planning side, I will simply reiterate what Steve says above, that WWU administrators, staff, faculty, and students are all doing our best to plan for the coming academic year with all of the local and community risks and conditions in mind. Many of the fall 2020 courses that are presently listed as face to face may have (current) plans for limited meetings, not full time, and I can assure you that the faculty take this whole situation seriously, and are and will act accordingly. The most important concern I would like to point out is the apparent scape-goating of the college students who are part of our community. Any increase in our personal interactions with others will increase the risk of added spread of this virus. This is one reason why WWU’s actions will be closely tied to how Whatcom County, and the state as a whole, are doing with respect to keeping the virus in check. I will also push back on your notion that our college-aged citizens are incapable of responsible behavior. While anecdotal, I know a couple of students who serve as interesting examples of the recklessness of the young that you are concerned about. One has worked at a local retirement home during high school and college. This large group community employs many of our young citizens. Being at significantly elevated risk, this retirement home, including all the residents and young employees, have worked together to employ social distancing, PPE, added training, and testing. So far, this student and the others she works with have been tested seven times- they are tested every two weeks. The residents and the employees have remained healthy. Importantly, these reckless youngsters realize very well that their actions, and the need to be responsible together, are required to get the whole community past this threat. Another student lives in a multigenerational home, so he has been very diligent, and proactive, in maintaining a larger amount of social distancing and a more cautious approach to his work and his research project than most other students (and, in fact, most of us mature, non-reckless older folks). In many ways, I look to the very considered and responsible actions and disciplines these two students have demonstrated over the past several months as examples to emulate. There are innumerable examples of other college-aged citizens who have taken this epidemic and its risks and consequences very seriously and have acted in only responsible and constructive ways. So, rather than pointing a finger at college students as the irresponsible “other” who you fear will bring pestilence to our doors, please give our younger citizens more credit, realize that they are here among us, and in many ways are working to help us all get though this together in ways that are more responsible and less reckless than actions taken by many older folks.


Dick Conoboy

Jul 26, 2020


What I presented was far from scapegoating but was based upon well-known studies of behaviours of those who are not only college age but are part of a group being infected with COVID-19 at an alarming rate.  I NEVER said that college age students are not capable of responsible behavior.  If you find that in what I said in my article, please quote the passage to me.  This is what I did say:

“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.”

Certainly, the actions of those young students you mentioned are laudable but as anecdotes, as you admitted, they may or may not represent the thousands of students who will return to campus.  I can also speak to many other groups of people in Bellingham whose behavior through this pandemic is irresponsible and should be condemned but they are not the topic here because they are already present and producing their own chaos.  The topic is bringing back to the city in the period of several weeks thousands of individuals from any number of cities throughout the state and the nation.  You can agonzie over opening and clean the living daylights out of each classroom and desk on campus but the mere fact of introducing a large group to what is now at the brink of an explosive outbreak is monumentally irresponsible. 

I stand solidly behind what I wrote and earnestly hope that the governor closes all the universities which will obviate the actions at WWU. 


David A. Swanson

Jul 26, 2020

Hi Bernie,

As a preview of what students can accomplish off-campus, the recent outbreak at several UW fraternities is a sobering example. The same thing could happen at any one or more of the many student housing facilities not on the WWU campus, which like the UW’s residential  Greek Letter Organizations, are not under the control of campus administrators. The Seattle Times story on this outbreak does not bode well for any of state’s higher education institutions, private or public ( It especially does not bode well for those following the WSU path, which is to reduce the number of students residing on campus when Fall Semester starts. Where these reductions take place, students will then be thrown into the off-campus housing market  and subject to virtually zero oversight from campus administrators. Even where this reduction does not take place, there are a lot of students who already live off-campus in this state and will be doing so again when classes start..

Consistent with the UW outbreak, I find it hard to believe that even the Covid-19 pandemic would change much of the socializing that takes place at off-campus housing in Belliingham. I did not witness any noticeable slowdown in these activites during the 1968-69 influenza(s) epidemic while I was an undergraduate student at WWU (then, WWSC). While not as bad as the Covid-19 pandemic, the 1968-69 pandemic produced deaths and at the end of Fall Quarter 1969, the strain I caught made me the sickest I have ever been in my life. The Washinton State 1968-69 Vital Statistics Summary shows 28 influenza-related deaths in Whatcom County, of which 16 were in Bellingham during this period (see Table 23: I remain grateful I was not one of them. I hope I can say the same thing at the end of the 2020-21 academic year and thank in advance you, other administrators, staff, faculty, and WWU students, as well as the City, County, and State, for what you all can do do in assisting me and others to see another summer. In leaving it out of my “thanks in advance” list,  you can tell that I do not expect any help from the current rendition of the US government’s executive branch. 


Dick Conoboy

Jul 26, 2020


Thank heavens I was safely far away in Vietnam in 1968/69.  There, if I walked out on the street I could have been shot.  Now if I leave the house, I can catch COVID-19 and might die.  Which is the combat zone?  Think about it.



David A. Swanson

Jul 27, 2020


Besides the risk of being shot, there were booby traps, mortars, and rpgs. To this list you can add Hepatitis C, exposure to widespread pesticide and herbicide spraying, malaria (40,000 cases to US troops), fungal and parasitic infections, a wide range of diarrheal diseases, animal, insect and snake bites and - keeping the best for last - meliodosis and leptospirosis, both of which hit a lot of troops. Thank your lucky stars for the immunizations you received before going. No cases of either cholera or smallpox were reported among US troops and very few, if any, cases of Dengue Fever, Typhoid Fever, Typhus, Yellow Fever, and Bubonic Plague,  In addition, your immunizations as a kid preserved you against polio, tetanus, diptheria, and whooping cough.

As a result of two reviews, the VA now recognizes eight conditions which are presumed to be related to service in Vietnam for the purposes of establishing service-connection disability: soft tissue sarcomanon-Hodgkins lymphomaHodgkin’s diseasechloracneporphyria cutanea tarda, respiratory cancersmultiple myelomaprostate canceracute periperal neuropathy, and spina bifida in offspring (see:,chloracne%2C%20porphyria%20cutanea%20tarda%2C%20respiratory).

I guess you avoided your “tongue in cheek” immunizations. You have one of the worst cases I have ever seen. A good Medic would recommend a strong dose of wine asap.




Dick Conoboy

Jul 27, 2020


Yes, the armed forces cannot afford to be involved with fake or voodoo science about the efficacy of vaccines or medications. Their readiness depends on reality in the realm of preventive medical care.  In Vietnam we took Cloraquine and Primaquine which are early ancestors of today’s hydro-chloraquine which I have also taken before, during and afer recent trips to certain tropical or sub-tropical locations.  As you mentioned we were subject to a dozen or more vaccinations prior to going to Vietnam. 

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, our present situation will continue unabated with a very likely possibility of a second wave that will make people yearn for the good old days of the openings we have now. 


Michael Riordan

Jul 29, 2020

In Bellingham you worry about the return of students, but here in the San Juan Islands we worry about the flood of summer tourists, already here, many of them young and unable to assess risk. So far, I’ve seen license plates from as far away as ME, VT, NY, PA, MD, SC, FL, IL, MN, IA, AR and TX — and from essentially all states in or west of the Rockies.

And on Saturday I witnessed a guy smoking while kayaking, first time I’ve seen that in 27 years of paddling! 


Dick Conoboy

Jul 29, 2020


I guess we all have our crosses to bear.  :-)



David A. Swanson

Jul 29, 2020

It may not have been tobacco the kayaker was smoking.



Michael Riordan

Jul 29, 2020

Actually, it was. I could smell it five yards away.

Which tells us something about airborne transmission of tiny particulates, even outdoors.


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