Dear WWU Community,
I know that one of the biggest questions on the minds of students and their families, and faculty and staff alike, is will we return to face-to-face operations in fall quarter? Needless to say, this involves a highly complex set of decisions that require planning for circumstances that no one can fully predict at the moment.
I am quickly learning the limitations of my doctorate training in quantitative decision modeling as I struggle with the need to make the right decision. Of course, the health and safety of our community is paramount. However, I worry that the progress we have made in advancing inclusive success and attracting our two most diverse classes in each of the past two years will be compromised the longer we teach and work remotely.
The educational benefits and personal growth of being part of an educational community, including the experience of voicing dissenting opinion and going through the difficult process of resolving conflicts, is hard to replicate in a remote learning environment. The hallmark of a Western education is academic excellence and I – and our faculty – recognize that moving from one teaching modality to another at short notice necessarily impacts quality, in spite of our best efforts.
So, while there is still much contingency planning underway, our current expectation is that fall quarter will start in-person as scheduled on September 23 with a hybrid approach that allows for a mix of online and in-person classes.
As you know, Governor Inslee recently unveiled a Safe Start Washington phased approach for reopening businesses, and he also sounded a hopeful note that there is, “a very good chance schools will reopen in the fall.” Of course, how well we continue to adhere to safe social distancing and other best practices to reduce virus transmission, between now and the start of fall quarter, will have a large impact on how quickly and thoroughly we can reopen.
I want to assure you that the decision-making process for fall quarter and beyond is being done in collaboration with community health experts, with university committees, and in consultation with our faculty and staff. A planning committee convened by Provost Carbajal completed its initial set of recommendations last week. Among those recommendations is to move large lecture sections online together with smaller in-person seminars; to move small and medium-sized classes to larger lecture halls; and to spread classes across days and times with staggered end times to reduce class size and ensure safe social distancing.
These steps may be augmented by a host of other changes including safe-occupancy living quarters in university residences, an indefinite prohibition on gatherings above a specified size, continued limitations on visitors to, and travel away, from campus, use of face coverings and other protective equipment, and frequent deep cleaning of facilities.
All of these course and schedule changes to the fall quarter will take some time to work through, and so Phase I registration that was scheduled to begin on May 19 will be delayed until June. The Registrar’s Office will post updates on fall registration to its website and send email notices to students about the new registration schedule as soon as possible.
We are encouraged that the Whatcom County health department believes there will be sufficient capacity to pre-test students, if needed, through the Student Health Center before arrival in September, as well as capacity to conduct testing throughout the academic year. Our plan includes dedicated quarantine space for on-campus residents who may be exposed to the virus, and for any student who tests positive for the virus, we will provide isolation space. Off-campus residents and employees who are exposed, or test positive, will be required to stay at home until they are cleared to return by a healthcare provider.
We also expect to be able to work with the county health department to trace proximate and frequent contacts of those who test positive. In addition, our new temporary student respiratory clinic on the main Bellingham campus will help us isolate and protect students with respiratory symptoms that are more difficult to assess by telemedicine.
For students and employees at WWU locations outside of the main Bellingham campus, we will follow the guidance and protocols established by our university partners as it relates to access to facilities and modality of instruction.
Of greatest importance is to protect the most vulnerable members of our community, and that means providing flexibility and support for those who may need to continue to work and study remotely. Students will have online access to all in-person classes, and all faculty members will have the option to teach fully online. Over the summer, we are devoting additional resources to improve the online course experience now that we have more time to do so. Importantly, these contingency plans will also allow us to pivot to fully online should infection and hospitalization rates spike again in the fall.
I’ve received several questions and I’m sure there are many more on your minds. I encourage you to stay tuned for further details on an upcoming live video Q&A, and I invite you to send your questions to the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. Your questions and concerns will help us ensure that our fall quarter planning is comprehensive and inclusive.
Moving to remote delivery of education, closing all but the most essential businesses, and socially distancing ourselves from one another were correct and necessary steps. These moves have saved lives and reduced strain on our healthcare system, while also reducing some of the daily risk faced by our frontline workers. But like any drastic action, these steps have come at extraordinary cost, as much human as economic.
I thank you for your understanding and ongoing patience during these challenging times. We are working hard to plan for the 2020-21 academic year, and we will continue to inform you of the latest developments for fall quarter, including details on the upcoming video Q&A. We are committed to providing students with high quality education and the best learning experience possible, and our employees a safe and productive place to work.
The Incident Command System team at Western has established three goals for all of our preparation and response to COVID-19: to protect life safety and minimize the spread of the coronavirus illness, to maintain – as much as possible – the continuity of Western’s operations, and to communicate with our communities as fully as possible.
Western's coronavirus information website features Frequently Asked Questions; has links to campus, regional and national resources; an archive of campus messaging and media stories about coronavirus; a new toll-free campus coronavirus information line, and more. The site is a living document, and gets frequent updates as the coronavirus situation evolves.