Breaking: Whitman College moves to online classes in wake of coronavirus outbreak

Alissa Antilla, Editor-in-Chief

Whitman College has made the decision to suspend all in-person classes and move to an “online learning model,” according to an email sent by President Kathy Murray to the Whitman community this morning. 

The College’s decision comes in the midst of a rapid increase in the spread of novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. 

According to the New York Times, at least 1,422 people in 45 states and Washington, D.C., have tested positive for coronavirus. 38 people with the virus have died. 

Washington state in particular has been hit hard with the pandemic. There have been 341 total coronavirus cases in Washington and 29 deaths, according to the New York Times. The first known coronavirus case in the U.S. was in Washington state.

While there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in Walla Walla County, Walla Walla’s neighboring counties – Umatilla and Columbia – have reported instances of coronavirus. 

Following the hospitalization of a Umatilla County man at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, another Umatilla County resident has tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. 

Columbia County announced its first case of coronavirus on Wednesday afternoon. The Columbia County resident contracted the virus while traveling overseas and is currently being quarantined at home, according to the Union-Bulletin. 

Six members of the Walla Walla community are currently being tested for the virus, according to the Union-Bulletin. 

In her campus-wide email, President Murray addressed the rapid spread of coronavirus. 

“While at this time we have no confirmed or presumptive cases at Whitman,” Murray wrote, “it has become clear how quickly this virus is spreading as we watch communities across the country and in our region increase their response to the spread of coronavirus. Now it is time for us to do the same.” 

Murray cited the efforts Washington Governor Jay Inslee has made to contain the virus as being a factor in the College’s decision. 

Gov. Inslee ordered all public and private K-12 schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to close by March 17, according to the Seattle Times. The earliest day schools can reopen is April 27. 

Gov. Inslee also banned gatherings of more than 250 people in those same three regions, according to the Seattle Times. Inslee’s decision is in response to the prediction that if the spread of coronavirus does not slow down, there could be 25,000 cases in King and Snohomish counties by April 7. 400 of those people would be likely to die, according to the report. 

The College’s decision to suspend in-person classes has major implications for graduation, student employment and life on campus. 

In her email, President Murray said that campus will remain open despite the move to online classes. Students will be able to stay on campus through spring break and until the end of the semester if they so choose. The residence halls will remain open and dining services will continue. 

However, Murray strongly discouraged students from coming back to campus if they do choose to leave for spring break. 

College-sponsored travel, public events on campus and Whitman-sponsored volunteer programs, internships and other programs out in the community have all been canceled. Access to Whitman facilities has been limited to students, faculty, staff and their immediate families, according to Murray’s email. 

Murray noted that staff should still report for work, considering that campus is still open. 

The College is still waiting to make a decision about commencement. 

“We are committed to working with every senior to make sure they can graduate on time. While we have not made a decision about how long online learning will continue, it is likely that it may need to continue through the end of the semester,” Murray said in her email. “We have not made any decisions about the commencement ceremony and will do everything we can to hold a safe and celebratory event.” 

The move to online classes will officially begin on March 30, the first day back from spring break. Classes are canceled tomorrow, March 13.

The change is effective until further notice. 

“It is with a heavy heart that I am making this decision today,” Murray said in her email. “This is not the direction I was hoping to go for the learning of our students.”

“I understand that you may be experiencing a sense of loss and that this may be extremely upsetting for many of you. It is for me too,” she added. “Minimizing the impact of coronavirus will require all of us to make sacrifices individually and as a community. This is uncharted territory and we will all need to be flexible and support each other through this time.”