New year, new COVID-19 policies

Anabelle Dillard, News Writer

Like the rest of Washington state, Walla Walla County has seen a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases in the new year, largely due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. According to the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, the county as a whole is 56.9 percent vaccinated and has had a total of 14,436 cases over the course of the pandemic with 120 COVID-19-related deaths. Between Jan. 11 and Jan. 24, Walla Walla County recorded almost 2,000 new cases, which is almost 14 percent of all recorded cases in the county. 

Despite high numbers in the greater Walla Walla area, Whitman’s COVID-19 cases have remained relatively low, with a 1.28 percent community positivity rate. 

Whitman implemented new COVID-19 protocols for spring semester, including requirements for receiving booster vaccines and wearing N-95, KN-95, or KF-94 masks. Restrictions were also placed on social gatherings, which were limited to no more than five people, although sports teams and official student organizations are still allowed to meet. While dining halls were closed at the start of the semester, they were re-opened to students on Jan. 28 and are operating at regular hours. 

When asked for comment, a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous approved of the current protocols, but expressed concern over the lack of online options for faculty members and students. 

“The initial policy [of] allowing faculty who are vulnerable or who live with vulnerable family members to teach the first couple of weeks online should be expanded throughout the semester. In addition, there are also folks who might not qualify for these requirements, but who might experience severe anxiety of teaching in-person in full or almost full classrooms,” said the professor. “Allowing more full online classes would also give more options to students who would also, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to hold classes in person.”

As the infectious period for the Omicron variant generally begins after the onset of symptoms, students experiencing symptoms quarantine immediately and get tested the next day. Students can get tested at the Welty Health Center or can have an at-home test delivered by Campus Security on the weekend when the Health Center is not open. 

Coronavirus Taskforce Chair Peter Harvey sends weekly email updates to the Whitman community regarding protocol updates and case data. He commented on an encouraging return to campus, but urged students to remain cautious. 

“While national news about lower case and death rates is encouraging, the omicron surge is not over in Walla Walla, and households and unmasked social gatherings still play the primary role in spreading the coronavirus. Heading into this weekend, continue to make wise choices as you consider how you spend your free time and in choosing activities that will be restorative for your mental, emotional and physical health,” Harvey said in the Jan. 4 COVID-19 update email.

Currently, Whitman is not offering an official hybrid model for classes. Sophomores Alanna Sherman and Olin MacIntosh created a petition calling for an online option for students in isolation, those with underlying health conditions, or who simply do not feel comfortable attending in-person classes.

“We had family and friends who were sick over break and it just felt crazy to head back to school in these conditions,” said MacIntosh. “Furthermore, we saw many other small schools creating online options or starting fully online and we were concerned that Whitman was not taking the same precautions… We found it unacceptable that [people who test positive for COVID-19] would have no choice but to miss class.”

Harvey explained that low rates of transmission and cooperation with COVID-19 protocols made a transition to online or hybrid learning unnecessary. 

“While we know that some colleges recently announced that they will be starting their spring semesters online, we continue to be optimistic that thorough testing practices, vaccine boosters and conscientious adherence to our community COVID-19 protocols are setting us up for success in returning immediately to in-person classes,” Harvey wrote in an email on Dec. 21.

Whitman’s Spring 2022 Covid-19 protocols can be found online at