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Students return to Whitworth campus, hoping to avoid COVID-19 in close living quarters

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 5, 2020

The first day of student move-ins at Whitworth University was a quiet affair.

Hundreds of masked freshmen, some accompanied by their parents or other helpers, hauled their belongings into their dorm rooms in staggered shifts on Friday to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, school employees sanitized indoor spaces and health workers swabbed students to conduct COVID-19 tests in popup tents outside the Hixson Union Building.

Like move-in week at Gonzaga University, which is also reopening for the fall semester, the whole operation at Whitworth was carefully planned in conjunction with the Spokane Regional Health District.

“We’re thankful for all the work that has gone into reopening campus. I feel like everyone’s taken the right precautions,” said Marni Nazareno, a 21-year-old senior studying community health and psychology.

As a resident assistant in Whitworth’s Ballard Hall, Nazareno will be tasked with monitoring students’ compliance with masking and social distancing requirements. On Friday, she wiped down surfaces in high-traffic areas and helped manage logistics as students and parents moved into the building.

Nazareno, who aims to pursue a master’s degree in public health, said she’s happy that Whitworth is offering flexible class schedules with a mix of in-person and online instruction.

“It’s definitely hard staying at home and taking classes at home, so it’s really nice that we have the option to be on campus,” she said. “It’s been really nice being around the Whitworth community again. Quarantine has been long.”

A second wave of new students is moving in Saturday, while returning students are scheduled to move into the dorms next weekend. Whitworth spokeswoman Trisha Coder said the university anticipates a total of 1,062 students living on campus.

Isaac Janzen, a 17-year-old incoming freshman from Abbotsford, British Columbia, said he decided to attend Whitworth, study criminology and join the university’s golf program after visiting the campus in February.

“As soon as I saw the campus and met all the people here, I had my mind set on coming here,” Janzen said.

Despite the threat of the virus, Janzen said he feels safe, in part because he will have a dorm room to himself. His mother flew into Spokane to help him move in. Both will be legally required to self-isolate for two weeks whenever they cross back into Canada.

Whitworth President Beck Taylor, who spent Friday morning greeting students and families, said the university was randomly testing 50% of incoming students for COVID-19 and conducting additional surveillance testing of students living off campus.

Taylor said the university was preparing to launch an online “dashboard” to help students, faculty and staff keep track of COVID-19 cases and evaluate the threat of the virus.

But due to federal confidentiality requirements, the university won’t necessarily notify every student who lives in a residence hall, or every student who attends an in-person class, if one student from the group tests positive, Taylor said.

“It all depends on proximity,” he said.

Francesca Jones, of Seattle, accompanied her freshman daughter, Tyshae Smith, to Whitworth on Friday. Jones said her daughter, who plans to study Spanish, has been extremely cautious and takes the threat of the virus seriously.

Jones said she was encouraged to see Whitworth employees strictly enforcing COVID-19 rules, especially after seeing many people in downtown Spokane without masks.

Sam Tefft, an 18-year-old incoming freshman from Newcastle, Washington, who is joining Whitworth’s football team, said he brought two packs of disposable masks to campus with his other belongings. He expressed hope that students will behave responsibly and enable the county to enter the final phases of the state’s reopening plan.

“As long as everyone follows precautions and stuff, I don’t think we’ll have any problems,” Tefft said. “Hopefully, we’ll move to Phase 3 and eventually 4 and get these things off our faces, and everything will be all right.”

Whitworth also announced Friday it was forced to postpone its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 until May. The university typically hosts commencements at the Spokane Arena, and Taylor said students expressed overwhelming support for an in-person ceremony in a recent survey.

Taylor said a gathering of that size won’t be allowed until the county enters Phase 4, so he’s hoping conditions improve by the spring.

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