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WSU, Gonzaga cancel spring break amid COVID-19 outbreak concerns

Washington State University junior Hesmir Mata connects her laptop computer to her 105 math class from her Pullman apartment living room on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.  (DAN PELLE)

Washington State University and Gonzaga likely will join universities across the country in cancelling spring break amid concerns that travel would cause further COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

The Washington State University Faculty Senate voted Thursday to cancel spring break and replace it with one-day academic breaks throughout the semester. Meanwhile, Gonzaga University sent a memo to faculty and students Friday announcing a new academic calendar that eliminated spring break.

WSU’s Faculty Senate, a university group that has legislative powers and makes recommendations to administrative officials, voted to push back the start of the spring semester to Jan. 19 and replace spring break with four one-day academic breaks throughout the semester.

WSU Provost Elizabeth Chilton sought advice from the Faculty Senate regarding the academic calendar, WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said.

She is expected to make a final decision next week, Weiler said.

COVID-19 cases in Whitman County rose sharply after students went back to school. Although WSU moved most classes online, many students still moved back to Pullman in time for the start of the academic year. The outbreak started on WSU’s campus but has now spread into the community. On Friday, the county reported 27 new cases of the virus, bringing the total to 1,484 . Three people are currently hospitalized, and one person there has died due to the virus.

Chilton urged the Faculty Senate in a memo to consider a revision in the academic calendar that came from system-wide conversations with chancellors and other administrators.

Chilton listed the benefits to a delayed start, including giving WSU a chance to adjust to changing federal decisions on remote instruction, and allow for staggered move-in and proper testing. Eliminating spring break would minimize students’ further exposure to COVID-19 and prevent further outbreaks, she wrote.

Gonzaga published an updated calendar on Friday that eliminates spring break but gives students four days off around Easter, spokesperson Mary Joan Hahn said. It also pushes the start date to Jan. 19 and adds another reading day – essentially a day without classes – for a total of five three-day weekends.

A memo to the university community said the decision was approved by Provost Deena Gonzalez and came “in light of continued challenges related to COVID-19, and at the recommendation of the Academic Council, comprised of faculty, students, and staff.”

“In this way, we also work to keep our students safe in that they are less likely to travel and we emphasize that by beginning one week later, we allow for more time for them at home and for faculty to prepare for the new semester,” she said.

As of Thursday, Gonzaga had 22 students or employees currently positive with COVID-19, with a total of 79 positive cases.

Some students worry of the toll on their mental health without a long break in the spring semester.

“It’s definitely a loss for students,” said Curtis Cohen, president of WSU’s student government.

Cohen said students look forward to spring break as a chance to relax before finals, and with everything online now, it’s especially important .

Having that break allows students to be more productive and successful during finals, he added.

In a Thursday news conference, Gov. Jay Inslee said he was ”so concerned” about fraternities’ and sororities’ behaviors across the state. Outbreaks at the University of Washington and Washington State University prompted Inslee to ask campuses for better supervision of the Greek systems.

“There will be consequences if we don’t get that leadership,” Inslee said.

Many students took to Twitter on Friday to express their disdain for a lack of student input in the decision, including student leaders who say they are continuously left out of these conversations.

Cohen said he only heard the idea briefly mentioned once to student leaders. He said there could have been a survey to see how many students were actually planning to travel during the break.

Still, administrators had the right intentions in this decision, Cohen said.

“A lot of decisions are being made, but it’s important to focus on students,” he said.

No changes have been made yet at Eastern Washington University, spokesperson David Meany said. The university is on a quarter system and has a natural spring break between winter and spring quarters where grading, finalizing enrollment and dispersing financial aid is done. Eastern Washington University had 44 students, nine employees and two visitors or vendors who tested positive for the virus.

A spokesperson from Whitworth University didn’t respond to requests for an update on their spring scheduling, while Community Colleges of Spokane’s spring break will go on as usual, spokesperson Carolyn Casey said. Forgoing spring break isn’t currently under consideration, she said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.