This story was updated Thursday to clarify that Whitman College’s classes have moved online. The college has also canceled its in-person commencement exercises and closed all academic buildings to students. This story was also updated Friday to include the latest information about Seattle University, which is allowing some students to stay in their dorms through spring quarter.

As Gov. Jay Inslee and state and local health officials have rolled out new social-distancing measures in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, students at colleges and universities across the state faced a different question: With spring breaks scheduled to begin this month, should students on campus stay or go? What are the risks that students could spread COVID-19 to their home communities or bring it back to campus?

When people travel outside affected areas, there’s a risk of spreading the virus, and more cases in one area means a greater risk of spreading the illness to other areas.

These are all valid concerns, said Janet Baseman, associate dean and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “It’s math,” she said, and airline travel in particular has been a “dominant opportunity” enabling the spread of COVID-19. “That’s how outbreaks get seeded,” she said. “That’s how it works.”

Students who choose to travel should be mindful of who they’re coming into contact with, she said, and take care to follow public health recommendations. Baseman said recommendations to wash hands frequently and avoid close contact with people who are ill are “still foundational.” But social distancing will be the key to getting through the pandemic. On Monday, the governor added large-scale social-distancing efforts to his efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s an investment in our future as a community,” Baseman said.

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Institutions of higher learning across the country have responded in a variety of ways to the outbreak. In Washington state, Inslee has mandated that all educational institutions move learning online, and colleges have followed suit.

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In some cases, the choice to travel for spring break has morphed into the choice to go home indefinitely. The Evergreen State College, which moved its quarter-end evaluations online, was encouraging students who could return home to do so. The same was true at Seattle University, where students have been asked to vacate their on-campus housing by April 4, although a university spokesperson said that some students would be given permission to stay in their dorms through spring quarter.

But at Seattle Pacific University, where dorms are typically closed over spring beak, university officials broke with tradition and announced that student residences would remain open over the week off at no cost to students. When the spring quarter begins April 13, students whose permanent residences are 100 miles or more from campus will have the option to remain in their dorms at SPU.

“For some of our students, this really is home. There’s not really another place to go,” said Jeff Jordan, SPU’s vice president for student life, of the decision to keep dorms open over the break. “We just took a look at what we could do … We didn’t want to charge students to stick around because these are things that may have been out of their control.”

SPU made arrangements for those staying on campus to have access to a meal plan, and offered stipends to student resident advisers who agreed to stay over spring break.

Out-of-state junior Kiana Kahusi was one of them. “I did think about going home for a little bit,” said Kahusi, 20, from Medford, Oregon. But after weighing her choices, and factoring in the long drive home, she decided to stay.“I was kind of like, ‘I’m gonna play it out until the end,’ ” she said.

Kiana Kahusi, a junior at Seattle Pacific University, is a resident advisor who has been asked to stay on campus during the time it will be be shut down. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Kiana Kahusi, a junior at Seattle Pacific University, is a resident advisor who has been asked to stay on campus during the time it will be be shut down. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Kahusi, a psychology major and leadership studies minor, provides emotional and practical support to residents of SPU’s Hill Hall on a floor of 41 mostly first- and second-year students. She said that the outbreak had thrown a wrench into students’ travel plans and triggered anxiety among SPU’s student body. After an email went out to students last Friday notifying them of SPU’s switch to remote learning, “it just seemed like a couple hours of just chaos,” Kahusi said.

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She was approached by students whose parents had called to tell them to come home immediately. “I even had a resident — there’s definitely a lot of anxiety — I had a resident (who) got the email Friday afternoon, booked a flight that afternoon, and left at 7 p.m.,” she said.

“More people are going home as time goes on,” she said. She described taking her residents to dinner with another dorm — that was before Inslee’s Monday announcement that shut dine-in options at restaurants, bars and campus dining halls — and watching the group shrink. “One of the guys was like, ‘Oh, this is always the Last Supper,’ ” she said.

Kahusi said that the outbreak had complicated some students’ decisions about spring break. Students are afraid of bringing the virus home, she said, and don’t want to put other people at risk. Between concerns like those, financial considerations and other challenges, Kahusi said students are changing their plans by the day.

“There isn’t really a textbook about [how colleges should handle] this specific thing that’s going around about COVID-19,” she said. “There isn’t a rule, a little asterisk in the book that says, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s the backup plan.”

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Dorms will also remain open at the University of Washington and Washington State University’s residential campus in Pullman, even as in-person instruction goes online. But unlike at SPU, where keeping dorms open during spring break is an exceptional measure, it’s business as usual.

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At WSU, students typically retain access to their housing during breaks, said Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president for marketing and communications. For students who may be homeless, students who are the first in their family to attend college and students facing economic hardships, he said, it’s important that the campus remain open.

“Some students have nowhere else to go,” said Weiler. Students also make up about two-thirds of Pullman’s population of just over 34,000. If students were to depart en masse, he said, it would be “pretty devastating for the community economically.”

It would be easy to shut down, said Weiler, but “we know that that is not the right thing to do for our student body.” As one of the state’s few institutions of higher education that runs on a semester system rather than quarters, shutting would mean students would lose out on the seven weeks of school left this term.

He said he’d heard of some students being encouraged by their families to stay in Pullman for spring break, and noted that for students who come from countries that have Level 3 travel health notices due to the novel coronavirus, going home “may be a real challenge” and even if it’s possible, “they would have a difficult time coming back.”

Things seemed less dire — at least for now — at Whitman College in Walla Walla, where as of late last week, students were attending class in person. (Courses have since moved online, and the administration announced this week that in-person commencement exercises would be canceled and academic buildings would be closed to students.) Sam Kuper, a Whitman senior majoring in history and economics, said that college leadership had encouraged students to remain on campus for spring break, and to plan to leave indefinitely if they departed on spring-break travels.

According to Whitman’s website dedicated to coronavirus updates, residence halls will remain open for the duration of the semester. Beyond that, wrote Whitman president Kathy Murray, the college planned to arrange housing for students displaced by the outbreak.

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Kuper said he’d decided to spend spring break on campus with his friends — a group of baseball players whose season was canceled. “There’s definitely sadness, but there are people walking around,” he said of the mood on campus.

Kuper said there’d been discussion of the coronavirus, as well as preparation on the part of the administration, but that so far “it doesn’t seem to have affected day-to-day activities,” including a dodgeball game Kuper had taken part in — an activity that would likely violate the social-distancing measures the governor announced just a few days later.

Those quick changes in public health guidelines have had some major ramifications for students and families. For some parents, like Tiffany Whitehead, who lives in Tampa, Florida, spring break could end up meaning having her adult children home indefinitely. “That’s not my empty-nest dream,” she said.

Whitehead has twin daughters who are both college freshmen — one at UW, one at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Both are coming home. Her third child is in law school in Nashville, and planned to stay put over the break, she said. Whitehead said that Pratt would be moving to online instruction, which is “really awkward … at an art school.”

It was a frustrating disruption to the beginning of her daughters’ college years, and Whitehead said she wasn’t sure how it would unfold. “We’re just gonna have to kind of call the shots as things come about,” she said.

On campus, SPU’s Kahusi faced a similar sense of uncertainty. But she said she’d seen the campus come together over challenges and tragedies, citing last year’s crane collapse in South Lake Union, which killed SPU freshman Sarah Wong.

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“Our whole campus came together to support those who needed the support and also to give them the space that they needed … we’re able to read the room of understanding what people need when they need it,” Kahusi said.

She said she’s seen something similar happening in recent weeks, as students have responded to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and resultant logistical and personal impacts. She said that her fellow RAs “have banded together.”

“We talk about these things, we cry together, we feel together … And so when our residents see that they then lead by example, and they realize we have this community,” Kahusi said.

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