Colleges and universities in western states are taking a variety of approaches to the fall semester as many brace for a potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 23-campus California State University system announced Tuesday the vast majority of its courses will be taught online, with limited exceptions, through the fall.
Schools in Eastern Washington, meanwhile, plan to reopen their campuses to the fullest extent possible while monitoring the spread of the coronavirus and working to maintain any outbreaks that occur.
Phil Weiler, a spokesman for Washington State University, said administrators are working on the details of a “resilient hybrid instructional model” that will allow the university to switch between online and in-person formats as pandemic conditions worsen or improve.
“It’s really premature to speculate about what that will look like,” Weiler said.
But WSU’s goal is clear.
“We really want to do everything we possibly can to return to face-to-face instruction in the fall,” Weiler said.
WSU epidemiologists are evaluating the university’s five campuses building by building, Weiler said, to figure out what class size limits and social distancing measures will work when face-to-face instruction resumes.
In the context of the pandemic, WSU is unlike the Cal State system in a few important ways, Weiler said.
Cal State Chancellor Timothy White said Tuesday the system brings together more than 500,000 people across its 23 campuses. And Weiler noted many of those campuses are in urban areas.
WSU, meanwhile, enrolls fewer than 32,000 students across its campuses in Pullman, Vancouver, Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities, and school officials believe they can effectively mitigate the spread of the virus.
Cal State “is operating at a different level of magnitude,” Weiler said. “If we had a campus in Seattle, that might be different.”
The University of Washington – one of the first major universities to switch to online instruction in early March – also has announced plans to reopen its campuses in Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell and resume in-person classes in the fall.
Eastern Washington University administrators last week announced they will take an “online first, maximum flexibility” approach, maintaining the ability to switch between online and in-person formats. The school will allow students to live in campus residence halls but limit occupancy to one per room.
Spokane’s two private universities, Gonzaga and Whitworth, have announced plans to reopen their campuses as well.
Whitworth spokeswoman Trisha Coder said Tuesday administrators were still working on those plans.
Lorraine Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Community Colleges of Spokane, said the situation is still evolving but administrators plan to reopen in the fall while following COVID-19 restrictions handed down by state officials. CCS is the district that includes Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College.
Some courses can only be taught in person, including some trade and apprenticeship programs and health care fields like physical and occupational therapy, Nelson said.
Fortunately, she said, most of the “heavy lifting” required to transition to online instruction already has been done.
“We have to see what happens when the end of the month rolls around,” she said. “We’re prepared to do classes online if we have to. But we’re also prepared to do it in person.”
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