Kathleen Murray

Whitman College

Every year, I look forward to springtime in Walla Walla: the return of beautiful, sunny weather, longer days, birdsong, and nature in bloom all around us. The academic calendar draws to a close, allowing us to celebrate and reflect on the year’s accomplishments as we rest and rejuvenate for fall.

This year, of course, that familiar rhythm has been interrupted. In February, I sent out the first of many messages to the Whitman community about COVID-19. At that point, we still had no idea just how much the virus, which seemed far away, would end up impacting us all. As I’m sure everyone reading this remembers, the situation changed rapidly. By the middle of March, we announced that we would have to move classes online after spring break.

Since then, I’ve gotten a few questions about how Whitman is adjusting to this strange new reality. Now that we’re in our final week of the semester, I wanted to take the opportunity to update the Walla Walla community on what we’re doing to cope with the crisis, our plans for the future, what I’ve learned and why I’m still hopeful.

While many of Whitman’s campus facilities are closed, like other schools we are still working around the clock to support out students. And unlike many colleges and universities across the country, Whitman has remained open for those students for whom returning home was not a viable option: students with difficult family situations, international students facing travel restrictions, and others who depend on us for room and board. Right now, that figure includes 578 students, 21 of whom are Walla Walla locals, 136 who remain in Whitman residence halls, and the remainder in off-campus housing. We are providing meals (to-go) and other services to these students. I am continually inspired by the lengths to which our faculty and staff have gone to make this happen as smoothly as possible.

Meanwhile, the majority of our student body left for the semester. Our faculty and many of our staff members are working remotely, in accordance with Governor Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order. Essential employees are following physical distancing guidelines. So far, we have not had any reported coronavirus cases at Whitman, but we know we’re not out of the woods yet. Throughout this ordeal, we have had two priorities: the health and safety of our community and student learning. Every decision is made with those priorities top of mind.

Looking ahead to the fall, Whitman has every intention of resuming in-person instruction unless the federal, state or local government advises against it. When we reopen, our campus may look different than it has in the past: professors may need to teach classes in larger settings, so that everyone has enough space to spread out. Students may need to be housed in single rooms. We may be wearing masks. And some of our students, staff and faculty with underlying health conditions may continue to require remote accommodation. Whatever the case may be, you can count on us to have contingency plans in place.

It goes without saying that the sudden switch to online learning and endless Zoom meetings has been challenging for everyone. I miss our students and the boundless energy they bring to campus life. Even mundane tasks like going to the grocery store now require a new level of caution. But in the midst of so much uncertainty, I have found occasion for optimism, and I hope you have, too. I’ve been heartened by our faculty finding unique ways to adapt their teaching to the web, from virtual biology field trips to a special new course launched this spring to help incoming students understand the pandemic from different perspectives. Our goal is to eventually make many of these lectures available to the public.

But what comforts me the most, especially on difficult days, is the unity and resolve of this community — the willingness to lend a hand, even from 6 feet apart. From the very beginning, Whitman has been indebted to our health officials for advising us and working with us every step of the way. We are deeply grateful to the doctors, nurses and paramedics who treat patients, the police and fire fighters who keep us safe, the farmers who keep us fed.

The spirit of generosity, already so strong in our community, seems only to have increased during this time of need. Facebook groups are sprouting up to promote takeout and delivery from beloved restaurants, or even sponsor meals for essential workers. Convoys of cars and bikes are parading down local streets to wave to kids stuck indoors or wish them a happy birthday. We all need each other to make it through. Now more than ever, I count myself lucky to live in a town like Walla Walla, where not even a contagious illness can break the bonds between us.

At Whitman, we’ve tried to do our part to repay some of the profound debt we owe to this community. I was proud to see our science departments donating supplies including gloves, masks, lab coats and alcohol swabs to the fire department. The family of a Whitman international student from China recently sent a free shipment of N95 masks to Walla Walla. Rapid testing for COVID-19 is being developed at Providence St. Mary Medical Center thanks to widespread support from many corners, including major support from a Whitman alum and faculty member.

Over the course of this crisis, I have seen the community rally together in countless ways — big and small — to support our students, parents, teachers, health care workers, first responders and small businesses. I already knew Walla Walla was a special place. Our actions in response to this crisis have reaffirmed that. The last few months have taught me just how many warm, creative, compassionate and resilient people I am fortunate enough to call my neighbors. Spring is a time of rebirth. I have faith that we will emerge from this period of social isolation even more connected.

Kathleen Murray is the president of Whitman College.