As the spread of the novel coronavirus grips businesses, public institutions and K-12 schools in Washington, colleges and universities here are taking unprecedented steps: moving all courses from the classroom to the cloud, or closing campus altogether.
The announcements dropped like rain on Friday. In the morning, the University of Washington made plans to suspend classes on its three campuses beginning Monday. Then came similar news from Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University and Northeastern University’s satellite campus in Seattle.
At the UW, officials are asking instructors to hold classes and exams remotely until the winter quarter ends March 20. The move will affect more than 48,000 students in Seattle, nearly 6,000 in Bothell and about 5,300 in Tacoma.
The decisions come amid rising cases of COVID-19 in Washington, the disease caused by this novel coronavirus — and news on Friday that a UW staff member who was tested for the illness received a presumptive positive result.
Although the test came back positive, it was done using a coronavirus test that hasn’t yet been federally approved, and will not be considered confirmed until the result is confirmed by the state Department of Health. This is the first person associated with the university known to test positive; four students were tested in late January, but their tests came back negative.
The staff member, who works in Roosevelt Commons East, an office space west of campus in the 4300 block of 11th Avenue Northeast, is in isolation at home. UW rents several floors in the private office building, which is used by administrative staff.
The announcements by the UW and other institutions here represent the most extensive moves by U.S. colleges to contain the spread of the virus — and raised questions about whether other local schools will follow suit.
Seattle’s three community colleges were operating as usual as of Friday afternoon, and a university official said an emergency response team is meeting daily. Elsewhere, Bellevue College, Lake Washington Institute of Technology, Cascadia College and Bellingham Technical College announced long-term plans to close or go online.
The question of whether to go online or close campuses entirely, touches on big issues in higher education: technological equity among students, university infrastructure, and the health and safety of faculty and students. At schools with no confirmed COVID-19 cases, the case at the city’s three community colleges, officials are also weighing whether to preemptively suspend classes. So far, they haven’t made definitive plans should someone on campus test positive.
“It’s something we would take into consideration but we haven’t said, if this happens, then we’re doing ‘X’,” said Earnest Phillips II, associate vice chancellor of communications for Seattle Colleges.
At the UW, officials made the decision to end on-site classes before they were aware of the staff member’s presumed positive result, President Ana Mari Cauce said Friday.
Cauce sent a letter to faculty and staff on Friday morning announcing the plans to go remote.
“In addition to providing maximum flexibility for our university community to take health precautions and finish classes this quarter, this transition provides our facilities crews additional time to deep clean classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, restrooms and other public spaces, as is their standard practice,” she said.
Classes are expected to resume in person when the spring quarter begins March 30, but at a news conference Friday afternoon, Cauce cautioned she doesn’t have a “crystal ball and can’t say where we are going to be with COVID-19 three weeks from now.”
At the UW, several courses already include virtual components, said UW spokesperson Victor Balta, such as online lectures and assignment portals. The university purchased a $200,000 license for Zoom Pro, a video and audio conferencing application, and is encouraging faculty to host virtual lectures and seminars. “It’s really a matter of scaling up what is already being done,” he said.
Carl T. Bergstrom, a UW biology professor, said he started using Skype and Zoom to meet with students in his independent research courses this week. He made the decision out of “an abundance of caution” and said he’s pleased with the university’s choice. He’d urge other colleges to consider doing the same, he added, including those outside Seattle.
“I think it would be completely appropriate,” he said. “What becomes critically important at this stage is to slow down the rate at which it [the virus] spreads.”
Some instructors may choose to end the quarter early. For classes that aren’t suited to remote instruction, Cauce said, instructors may submit students’ final grades based on work they’ve completed so far.
The decision caused a mix of relief and concern for UW junior Cooper Wechkin, 21, a business administration major who lives off campus. Wechkin’s mother has health issues and he planned to visit her in Bellingham in a few weeks.
He’s more at ease now that he knows he doesn’t have to visit campus, risk being infected and passing the virus to his mom. “But it’s a little stressful,” he said, since there’s now uncertainty about his ongoing assignments and final grades.
UW hospitals and clinics, dining and residence halls and recreation facilities will remain open. Officials say they’ve doubled their cleaning efforts and are paying particular attention to doorknobs, elevator buttons and other fixtures that get touched often.
Seattle University also planned to go online starting on Monday; in an email to faculty and students, university president Stephen Sundborg said on-site classes are suspended until further notice. Campus remains open, however.
Western Washington University, in Bellingham, with about 16,000 students, announced on Friday it plans to cancel its March 21 winter commencement because of coronavirus concerns; officials said they have no plans to suspend in-person classes, however.
Students scheduled to graduate at the conclusion of winter quarter, which ends March 20, will be incorporated into larger June commencement ceremonies, officials said. Administrators added that other “large-scale events” scheduled for the next three weeks may also be canceled.
Staff writer Christine Clarridge contributed reporting.