We need better COVID-19 communication from the administration

Victoria Helmer, Columnist

By now, you’ve probably heard about the four staff members and one student who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Perhaps you first found out through The Wire. Maybe you found out through last Thursday’s Whitman Today email, sent on Nov. 12. That is, you might have noticed if you had scrolled beyond the cluttered “Throwback Thursday” video and the update for Off-Campus Studies that applied to 20 students at most. Even so, you would have had to read the print under the “COVID-19 in Walla Walla” headline closely

I actually first found out about last week’s cases from a screenshot of a Facebook post on Nov. 11. It is worth noting that this post was written by a fellow student, who said that the administration had known since Nov. 9. I’m still not sure exactly when the administration was notified of these cases, but that’s a part of the problem.  

Since this is the first time in months that we’ve had documented cases in the on-campus Whitman community, I think it’s reasonable for us to expect a more timely, clear notification from the administration. When we had our first case in July, President Murray emailed us a timely warning with a succinct subject line: “First COVID case on campus.” 

COVID-19 poses a challenge to the community that requires mutual trust to overcome. When we’re kept informed, we’re more likely to cooperate with each other. Considering Whitman’s shift to a mixture of in-person, hybrid and online classes during the spring, we must reimagine what future case notifications should look like. 

Drawing inspiration from Walla Walla County and other colleges in the Pacific Northwest, I propose the following: 

  1. Let us know what our case notification protocol is on the Whitman website. Reed College clearly outlines theirs.
  2. Update our COVID-19 dashboard daily. Seattle University, Lewis & Clark College and Gonzaga University do this. Walla Walla County does this as well. Let us also know the date and time of the last update.
  3. In Whitman Today emails, let us know about new community cases more legibly. Take inspiration from the first batch of Whitman Today emails, and update us with “Coronavirus News” first. 
  4. Let us know if the students who test positive live on or off campus. Whitworth University, Lewis & Clark College and Gonzaga University do this. Let us know whether staff or faculty members worked on campus, like President Murray told us in the timely warning from July. 

This list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the idea. In short, let us know. We deserve to hear directly from the administration rather than finding out indirectly through Facebook. 

The above suggestions regard communication from the Whitman administration to the broader Whitman community, but I think we ought to reimagine other, more fluid forms of communication among the community. I propose supplementing city halls, office hours and opinion pieces with other forms of civic participation. Constructing a Google Form in which people can share their thoughts and suggestions could be a simple place to start.

Under the right conditions, digital innovations are key to building and maintaining the kind of trust that will continue to be critical for our community moving forward. Overall, I am incredibly grateful for Whitman’s cautious COVID-19 response; I believe in Whitman, and I truly believe we can grow together.