Whitman students return after pandemic

Sociology professor Michelle Janning teaches a class of masked and distanced Whitman College students in Reid Campus Center’s Young Ballroom in February. Many spaces on campus had been adapted to accommodate social distancing recommendations. Whitman College’s leaders hope requiring a COVID-19 vaccine in the fall will allow students to return to a more “normal” college experience.

Class is back in session at Whitman College.

Under the Spring 2021 Safe Start Plan, Whitties have officially returned to Walla Walla to resume their college careers in person after COVID-19 prompted the sudden shift to a distance-learning model last March.

“Landing at the Walla Walla airport was magical,” said Genevieve Vogel, a first-year student. “I took a moment to just stare at the mountains.”

While COVID-19 cases are thankfully trending down nationwide, the college remains committed to keeping Whitties — and the wider Walla Walla community — safe.

Spurred by science professors Brit Moss and Jim Russo, Whitman loaned an ultra-low temperature freezer to Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center to store the Pfizer vaccine. As well, Whitman employees and grads have also supported community immunization efforts by volunteering at mass vaccination clinics.

Meanwhile, strict safety measures remain in place on campus, including frequent COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff, as well as a two-week quarantine for students arriving in Walla Walla from out of town. During this period, students were restricted from leaving their residences except for outdoor exercise and to-go meal pick-up.

“This semester is like no other before it,” said President Kathleen Murray. “Arriving at this moment has involved an extraordinary team effort. I’ll admit I was a bit choked up seeing the ‘Welcome to Whitman’ banners strung across Boyer Avenue, masked students moving around campus and lights on in residence halls that had been dark for far too long.”

Students now have the option to take a combination of in-person, online and hybrid classes while living in their residence halls or off-campus housing. Masks and distancing are mandatory. Every member of the Whitman community must log a daily wellness check via an app, complete special training and sign a community pledge to follow all federal, state, local and Whitman health guidelines.

For students, the privilege of being in Walla Walla again after almost a year away is worth the added responsibility.

“Even though I can only see my friends at a distance with a mask on, it’s worth it to be back,” said Sydney London, a sophomore and student athlete. “I’m glad I had the option to come back to Walla Walla, and I think without returning I would have not just struggled academically but mentally as well.”

Vogel said, “Being at home felt like being stuck in time and disconnected from the possibilities college offers. Being in a shared, unknown place reminds me to connect with different people and push myself out of my comfort zone.”

Sociology professor Michelle Janning has had many similar conversations with the students in her classes about what it means to live through these unprecedented times, and the independence and enrichment that attending school in a new place can offer.

“A return to campus — which has always been part of the rhythm of being a Whitman student — is often accompanied by an in-person reunion and sharing of collective memories among students,” Janning said. “Spring 2021 is no different. Except that it is totally different. Everyone has a new social context of a pandemic that is shaping all of our memories.”

Despite the unique circumstances, Whitman students are grateful to be back in Walla Walla — and they’re not taking anything for granted.

For more information and the latest data on how Whitman is responding to the ongoing pandemic, visit the college’s COVID-19 dashboard at whitman.edu/covid-dashboard. The site is updated every Monday.

Gillian Frew is the media relations strategist at Whitman College.