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October 9, 2020 - Thinking About the Spring

Dear Members of the Whitman Community,

Now that we are well into the fall semester, I know many are beginning to wonder about what the spring might look like.  I wanted to lay out how we are thinking about the Spring 2021 semester in these uncertain times of coronavirus. But before I get to that, I wanted to thank everyone for your flexibility and hard work over the past six months.  The work I have seen by faculty and staff to make the fall semester the best possible experience for our students is extraordinary.  Similarly, the dedication to new ways of learning that I have seen in our students shows a maturity and love for learning that is inspiring.  I am hearing good things about the remote learning model and am pleased to see everyone making the best of the situation.

That being said, we want more than anything to return to in-person learning after winter break.  We will do everything in our power to make that happen.  However, as we have seen many times in the past six months, there are many factors that we cannot control when it comes to this pandemic. Those factors have kept us apart so far and we acknowledge there is a real chance that the same could happen for the spring semester.

We are also working on a hybrid model for the spring in the event we are not all able to return for in-person learning. In this model, we would bring back some students to live and study in academic pods. If circumstances are such that it would be unsafe to bring back all students, this setup would allow us to bring students back at a lower density, therefore lowering the risk of spreading COVID-19. Students would live together and take most classes together in groups of about 15 with additional classes attended remotely. Students who are interested would be chosen by lottery. We’ll have more information about this model as well as lottery sign-up instructions in the coming days.

As we look to make our decision about in-person learning for next semester, we will rely on science and the advice of health care professionals.  We are looking at the challenges faced by the schools doing in-person learning this fall as well as the successes.  In the end, we will make our decision based on infection rates in Walla Walla and surrounding areas, the flu season’s impact on infection rates, testing capacity and timeliness, contact tracing and quarantine capacity, and the capacity of the medical community in Walla Walla.

Another question on the minds of many of our community has to do with when we can expect a decision about the spring.  Given the constantly changing rate of virus spread, the unknowns of the winter flu season, and the uncertainty of testing availability we likely won’t be in a position to make any decisions about coronavirus until late November or early December. I know that timeline is not ideal and it does not allow students, their families, and faculty and staff much time to plan.  But if we want to be back in person, we must make sure we have as much information as possible before making that decision.  If we are going to make sure we keep each member of our community safe, making any decision earlier than that would be irresponsible.

Planning for the spring is well underway by our coronavirus task force.  Many of them are continuing the cumbersome work of the past six months which has got us to where we are today.  This work is in addition to their regular jobs, and I want to thank them for their commitment to the college and their tireless work up until this point. Based on lessons learned over the past six months of coronavirus response, the task force is now functioning as two primary working groups: one focusing on policy and planning issues and the other focusing on operations and implementation of the plans. Elected faculty leadership are part of the task force to ensure that the work of the task force is closely aligned with what is happening inside the classroom.

As plans solidify over the next few months, the Coronavirus Task Force and I will continue to communicate the progress that is being made.  In the meantime, I wish you a healthy fall.  Please continue the good work you are doing following our community pledge and staying safe.  The more we all practice social distancing, wear masks, and limit our interactions, the sooner we will all be able to be together again.


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