Dear Whitman community,

As COVID-19 conditions slowly improve locally and nationally, Whitman’s leadership is carefully considering how to evolve our COVID-19 protocols. In this process, we are weighing the things we know (especially our excellent campus vaccination rate, which provides a high level of protection against serious illness as well as some protection against new infections) against the things we don’t know (particularly how quickly case rates will decrease and the possibility that new variants may emerge). Above all, we will continue prioritizing the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff.

Last week, the CDC provided new masking guidance that details COVID-19 protective measures based upon a county-by-county risk assessment based upon a combination of infection rates and hospitalization rates. (Walla Walla County currently falls into the “medium” risk category.) In response, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the end of the state’s indoor masking mandate will be moved from March 21 to March 12 while noting that local governments, private businesses and other organizations may still require masks if they so choose.

At Whitman, we closely watch the risk of transmission and the actual COVID-19 cases in our community as we make decisions for our campus community. Right now these numbers are very low and we hope they will stay that way. During Spring Break, when many people will be traveling and socializing outside of the Whitman community, it is imperative that we continue to take steps that minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection. In order to isolate any infections contracted during Spring Break, we ask that everyone who travels outside of Walla Walla take a rapid antigen COVID-19 test before returning to Whitman. For a second round of testing, we will give test kits to all students, as well as faculty and staff who request them due to travels, in the week following Spring Break. More details on that will be sent at a later time.

Assuming our community positivity rate remains low, Whitman’s Cabinet and elected faculty leadership, with the support of our consulting epidemiologist, have decided that the following modifications will be made to our campus COVID-19 practices effective Saturday, March 12:

  • Indoor public spaces will become mask-optional for everyone who is up-to-date on the COVID-19 vaccine. To be considered up-to-date, you must have received all the vaccine doses (including the booster) that you are eligible for. People with approved vaccine and/or booster exemptions must continue to wear masks in all indoor public spaces. In classrooms, faculty will have the choice to continue requiring masks or making them optional.

    Each person should consider their own risk factors to decide if masking remains part of their individual COVID-19 protective practices. For members of our community who are themselves vulnerable or live with people vulnerable to severe illness, proper masking is an essential way to minimize the risk of transmission. We encourage anyone who wants or needs to maintain a high level of protection to continue masking. It is our hope that by transitioning to mask-optional everyone will feel comfortable making their individual choice while keeping the well-being of our community in mind — and trusting that others are doing the same. 
    • We will provide new N95 masks to anyone wanting them after Spring Break. According to our epidemiologist, a person wearing a properly-fitting N95 is very well-protected even if they are the only person in the room with a face covering. We will also have the Whitman-branded cloth masks available for people who would prefer them. Although they are not as effective against the omicron variant as N95s, they are the most protective style of cloth mask.
  • We will remove the five person limit for social gatherings. However, experience has shown us that indoor and unmasked gatherings, whether in off-campus houses or residence hall rooms, are a risky situation with a high likelihood of spreading COVID-19 (even if just one asymptomatic infected person is present). If you plan to hold gatherings of more than five people, please consider doing so outdoors to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
  • Students volunteering in local organizations will not be required by Whitman to be masked. However, if the host organization has a masking requirement we expect the students to follow that.

While we hope that these steps will be part of the transition to the new normal, individual choices must be balanced with the best practices for public health. Therefore, we will continue to offer the following COVID-19 resources and support at Whitman:

  • On-campus COVID-19 testing for students and employees who have been symptomatic for 24 hours or are close contacts to people with COVID-19
  • Contact tracing for people who are exposed to COVID-19 at Whitman
  • On-campus isolation space and support for students
  • Vaccine and booster requirements for campus members and visitors

The lifting of COVID-19 measures at Whitman and in Washington state is encouraging, but life throughout the pandemic has been unpredictable. Should COVID-19 conditions worsen, Whitman will protect the health of our community by implementing stricter mitigation measures, including resuming masking requirements and gathering limits. Moving into the spring, the resiliency and adaptatability that we’ve demonstrated over the past two years will remain critical characteristics for our communal well-being. Thank you for your ongoing trust and support as we move into this season of new hope for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathy Murray
President, Whitman College