For months we felt fortunate in Whitman County. COVID-19 cases locally were extremely low and the county, unlike most in the state, moved comparatively quickly to Phase 3 in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan.
Washington State University closely monitored the rapidly evolving pandemic while aggressively preparing for the potential impacts. At the same time, we knew we had to stay flexible and adapt to changing circumstances.
Though we’d originally contemplated a hybrid model of instruction this fall, in July it became apparent that with surging case counts nationally we couldn’t safely do that so we canceled most in-person instruction. We also joined our Pac-12 partners in postponing fall sports.
We urged the more than 30,000 students in the WSU system to remain at their permanent homes if possible, but we always knew some would return to Pullman in the fall — in most cases because they already had signed lease contracts for private, off-campus housing. WSU did open residence halls for a very limited number of students who had an institutional need to live on campus, and currently are at just 15-percent capacity.
We’ve seen an increase in positive tests for COVID-19 as students moved to Pullman for the start of the fall semester, something other universities have experienced as well.
Let me be clear: Students must follow public-health policies concerning physical distancing, wearing face coverings and restricting the size of gatherings. We are reinforcing those requirements through coordinated messaging and in concert with the work of Pullman police and our other community partners.
We’re also expanding community testing capacity with Cougar Health Services erecting a standalone testing sites on the WSU Pullman campus. This week, and leading up to Labor Day weekend, the William A. Crosetto Mobile Health Care Unit will be on College Hill, staffed by professionals from WSU Health Sciences Spokane to test WSU Pullman students who report COVID-19 symptoms or have had close contact with a person who has COVID-19.
But we can’t let recent events overshadow the months of effort to prepare us to carry on the important work of this university — work that includes wide-ranging research into the causes and effects of COVID-19 to help prevent future pandemics.
Whenever new challenges arise, it can be easy to overlook the preparation and coordination already invested that enable adjustments to be made quickly and smoothly. This kind of hard work can be found throughout the entire community. I want to share some of the major steps we’ve taken at WSU:
- We established a diagnostic lab on the Pullman campus to test COVID-19 samples, capable of processing 500 to 1,000 tests per day from throughout eastern Washington to expand needed statewide capacity in support of reopening Washington’s economy.
- WSU made employees available to Whitman County Public Health early on in the pandemic for training and use as contact tracers for COVID-19 cases involving the Coug community in Pullman, helping amplify critical community resources.
- Anyone who is going to be physically present on any of WSU’s campuses or sites statewide must go through a symptom attestation process.
- Together with public and private partners, we installed a network of drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots around the state to help Cougs and others access high-speed internet, as much of our world moved online.
- A Public Health Emergency Preparedness Task Force has met twice weekly since February to address all aspects of COVID-19. This group, whose members include representatives from Whitman County Public Health, coordinates closely with city, county and state officials.
- WSU’s COVID-19 website has become a clearinghouse for information for students, faculty and staff.
- To date, we’ve held nine public town hall meetings to keep students, their families, faculty and staff updated on policies and procedures and work underway across WSU to help address the pandemic. We will hold additional town halls throughout the fall.
- Many buildings on our campuses are closed, but those that are open are being regularly sanitized using cleaning materials and methods approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most recently, our Division of Student Affairs launched a student-driven public health campaign called Cougs Cancel Covid to promote healthy practices.
Personally, I’m humbled by the dedication I’ve witnessed in confronting this terrible pandemic. The university and our Pullman community have been affected in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the start of the year, and no doubt we’ll continue to be tested. But I’m grateful, as ever, for your support and committed to facing this together.
Kirk Schulz is the president of Washington State University.