Dear Whitman community,

As we continue to navigate life with a virus that is becoming endemic, I wanted to provide you with an update and some context for the current outbreak at Whitman. We currently have 80 people in isolation, out of a total 119 cases since the outbreak began, and as we have analyzed data around who has tested positive in the past few weeks, two clear trends emerge that account for the vast majority of our cases:

  • COVID-19 is spreading between people living together in off-campus houses and between roommates in residence halls
  • COVID-19 is spreading in activities where people are not wearing masks while in close spaces together, such as while in cars and at social gatherings

As I noted in last Friday’s email, our epidemiologist works with several other colleges that have also experienced recent outbreaks with similar patterns of spread, and his expectation is that with the mitigation efforts we have in place, we should soon begin seeing a reduction in the number of new cases each day.

While we realize this does not mean that there is no risk to the campus community in general, the Cabinet, in consultation with our epidemiologist, believe that it demonstrates that the risk of transmission is significantly lower when people follow our masking and social gathering protocols, and that we can and should continue safely holding in-person classes. Our experience and that of other colleges has shown that when schools go online, students spend more time indoors in situations where there is less masking, which can actually drive cases up. Additionally, online classes and complete restriction of social gatherings diminish mental health and students’ engagement with their college experience, so our priority remains protecting in-person classes and activities that can be held safely.

As a college, we have made our way through the ups and downs of the past two years by working together to follow the appropriate health and safety protocols. We are thankful that so far COVID cases at Whitman have mostly been mild, but it remains important for us to continue protecting the people in our community who are at risk of serious illness. In our current phase of living with endemic COVID-19, we should all take the following steps to reduce the risk of spreading the virus:

  • Continue masking in all campus indoor public spaces with N95/KN95/KF94 masks.
  • As the weather improves, move organized and informal activities, such as club meetings, meals or group study sessions, outdoors whenever possible.
  • Events held indoors should take place in the biggest space available so that attendees can be well spread out and should open windows and doors whenever possible to improve air circulation.
  • For on-campus dining, when possible use the Bon Appetit mobile app to order ahead and get meals to go or eat outside.
  • Finally, we encourage students to consider wearing N95 masks in their living situations. I realize it feels extreme to wear a mask inside your own home or room, but this has been such a significant place of spread and the extra layer of protection can make a big difference in campus spread, especially if someone in your living group is symptomatic, a close contact or has tested positive.

The end of the semester is not far off, and this is the first year since 2019 that we are planning for a normal commencement ceremony — an occasion to celebrate our graduates, who have spent the majority of their college career in a learning environment defined by COVID-19. We want to give them a joyful celebration with their family, friends and college community in recognition not just of their educational achievements but the fact that they have demonstrated exceptional resilience and perseverance in navigating an unprecedented worldwide crisis. While commencement may not seem very important if you are not one of this year’s seniors, we are counting on all of you to help us make this important milestone a reality by taking all the steps you can to help reduce the spread of coronavirus at Whitman.

Best,
Peter

Peter Harvey
Chair, Coronavirus Task Force