Whitman College grapples with coronavirus threat

Alissa Antilla, Editor-in-Chief

Following last week’s hospitalization of a man from Umatilla County with coronavirus, Whitman College has been taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus. 

“The events around the world regarding Coronavirus is a matter of great concern and we are taking this matter seriously here at Whitman,” Whitman Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Kazi Joshua said in an email to The Wire. “We have a team of people across campus working hard to prepare our community for a variety of scenarios.”

“Things are changing rapidly and we will keep the campus updated as new details emerge,” he added. “For now, my best advice for students is to pay attention to the advice we share in our campus updates.”

The first major change Whitman implemented was an adjustment to the College’s excused absence policy. 

Joshua sent an email to the Whitman community last Thursday, March 4, addressing the change. 

“In accordance with recommendations of the Washington State Department of Health on controlling coronavirus on campuses,” Joshua said, “we are modifying our excused absence policy so that students do not need a note from a health care provider to be excused from class due to illness.”

In order for an absence to be excused, students typically need to go through the Dean of Students Office for approval. However, Joshua’s recent email provides more flexibility. 

Following the excused absence announcement, a March 5 email to the Whitman community informed students, faculty and staff of actions that the College’s coronavirus task force has taken to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Steps include placing additional hand sanitizer in every building on campus; focusing on disinfecting door knobs, handles and surfaces; installing contactless card readers in Cleveland Commons, Reid Café and Jewett Café; increasing table cleaning at Cleveland Commons and providing personal hand towels to each student living in a residence hall on campus. 

On Saturday, March 6, Joshua sent another email to the campus community regarding a forum for students that will be held by the coronavirus task force. During the forum, the task force will explain what measures they have taken to address the spread of coronavirus so far, and they will answer questions students may have about how the college has been responding to the virus. 

The forum will be held in Maxey Auditorium on Tuesday, March 10, at 4 p.m. For those who do not want to be in a public space such as Maxey, the video will be available to stream online

Whitman College President Kathy Murray issued her first response to the coronavirus threat in an email to the campus community on Monday, March 9. 

President Murray noted that over the weekend, one Whitman student was tested for coronavirus. Because the student had flu-like symptoms, the test was administered as a cautionary measure. While waiting for the test results to come in, the student is self-isolating. 

President Murray also stated that there are no cases of coronavirus on Whitman campus or within the Walla Walla community. 

Seven individuals in the Walla Walla community were tested over the weekend for coronavirus, but all seven tests came back negative, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. 

Two more swabs were sent in on Monday, March 9, for testing. 

“We have been preparing for the possibility of confirmed cases or community transmission,” President Murray stated in her campus-wide email. 

President Murray went on to say that if there were to be confirmed cases of coronavirus in Walla Walla, Whitman would “cancel all public events on campus, limit community access to Whitman facilities and suspend all Whitman-sponsored community programs.” 

If there were confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Whitman community, President Murray said that Whitman would transition to online classes in an effort to disinfect campus and gain better understanding of the outbreak. 

Numerous colleges and universities have already made the move to online classes. 

Stanford University, University of Washington, Seattle University, Bellevue University, Cascadia University, Everett Community College, Shoreline Community College and University of Puget Sound have all canceled in-person classes. Many have shifted to online classes. 

In her email, Murray also addressed spring break, which is scheduled to begin in three days. 

She noted that the coronavirus task force and faculty leadership decided not to cancel spring break. However, Murray made a strong recommendation for students to cancel travel planned for spring break and stay in Walla Walla instead. Her recommendation was an effort to “limit the possibility of exposing members of our community to COVID-19 and transmitting coronavirus.”

“While for many students, the risk associated with coronavirus is low,” Murray said in her email, “it is important to remember that we have a responsibility to the Walla Walla community to go to every effort to not spread the virus throughout our region. That is a real possibility should you travel during spring break and return to campus at the end of the month.”

President Murray also warned students that because the coronavirus situation is changing at a rapid pace, if students leave campus, they may not be able to return because of travel restrictions. 

“Countries and regions may enact restrictions and even quarantines with little advance warning,” Murray said in her email. 

Both Murray and Joshua acknowledge that the coronavirus situation can change rapidly. They recommend keeping up to date with the College’s page on coronavirus for the latest updates.