Whitman College and Walla Walla University are both planning to bring students back to campus in January.
Meanwhile, Walla Walla Community College, which does not have any on-campus residence halls, will remain in its current “Warrior Flex” model that has limited in-person instruction for select programs.
Officials at Whitman College and Walla Walla University announced their plans earlier this fall. But since the announcements, COVID-19 cases in Walla Walla County have increased significantly, forcing most school districts that had opened to return to distance learning.
However, even with COVID-19 cases being higher now than when the decision was made to move online for the fall, leaders at both institutions confirmed Monday they remain committed to their plans to bring students back.
“We have learned a great deal more about the virus,” Whitman College President Kathleen Murray said. “We have also learned from institutions that did well this fall, as well as institutions that struggled.”
Aaron Nakamura, Walla Walla University’s director of marketing and university relations, had similar comments.
“Our country has learned a lot about COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March, specifically about how it is transmitted and steps we must take to interrupt the spread of infection,” Nakamura said. “We recognize that the pandemic is still of significant concern, and for that reason we continue to insist on safety protocols.”
Murray added that while COVID-19 cases may be up, there are other factors that are currently better now than they were in the fall.
“We could not access testing in the fall and are now able to do that,” Murray said. “We’ll have access to robust testing for students, faculty and staff when they come back in January. We feel we have a plan in place now that we simply weren’t ready with in the fall.”
Walla Walla Community College President Chad Hickox, meanwhile, said while the Warrior Flex model can be adjusted like a dial to offer more or less in-person instruction as needed, he doesn’t expect that dial to be turned at this time.
“Unfortunately, with cases rising in the communities we serve, we do not expect to expand in-person teaching, at least not early in the winter quarter,” Hickox said.
Whitman College uses a semester schedule. While the school’s spring semester begins on Monday, Jan. 25, students living on campus will be required to move in on Jan. 16 or 17.
“We are inviting students back on campus one week before the second-semester classes are scheduled to begin so they can quarantine,” Murray said. “Everyone will have a scheduled time to show up onto campus so that we don’t have them all coming in at once.”
Murray said Whitman students living off campus will be required to move into their off-campus housing in Walla Walla by Jan. 18 so they can also start their quarantine at that time.
“We will test all students on ‘Day Zero,’ which is what we’re calling move-in day,” Murray said.
Then, students will be expected to remain in their room for 14 days. This includes for the first week of classes, which will be fully online.
“They can leave their rooms to go get a meal from the dining hall and bring it back to their rooms, they can use the bathroom — obviously — and they can go outside for physically distanced exercise. Otherwise, they need to be in their room.”
She said staff in the residence halls will enforce the rules requiring students to quarantine.
And students will be tested for COVID-19 an additional time on day seven.
If, after the 14-day period, students are still healthy, they will be able to begin their in-person instruction.
Should a student test positive for COVID-19, the college has a number of buildings where they can isolate infected students, Murray said. Meals would be delivered to these students, and staff would check in on them.
Walla Walla University is also using a quarantine system, but this period will begin at home.
WWU follows a quarter schedule, and winter quarter is set to start Jan. 5 with students learning from their homes. At that time, students will be expected to quarantine in their own homes until moving onto campus.
Move-in will be between Jan. 8 and 10 by appointment only. Students will then remain quarantined in their rooms until Jan. 18. Students who test negative for COVID-19 at this point may begin in-person instruction.
“We will also continue to require students and university employees to complete daily health self-assessments and a daily temperature check at a campus screening station before they can access campus,” Nakamura said.
Walla Walla Community College’s plans are to continue to offer most students as close to an in-person experience as possible online. This includes live meetings over Zoom where students can interact with instructors.
“(Our) model was intentionally designed to ensure that our students can continue with their learning, regardless of COVID restrictions. This fall we’ve offered online classes in real-time and on-demand,” Hickox said. “We will continue to offer our students whatever supports they need to succeed, including face-to-face time with faculty.”
Hickox said student feedback has been used to develop the model.
“We also continue to survey our students and learn how we can best serve them at this time,” Hickox said.
“As one might expect, no single mode of learning suits all needs, but we think with the WWCC Flex instructional model, we are striking the proper balance between providing high quality instruction and maintaining the safety of students and staff.”