As I write this letter in mid-January, Whitman students are joining us on campus for the first time since last March. I'll admit I am a bit choked up seeing the “Welcome to Whitman” banners strung across Boyer Avenue, masked students moving around campus and lights on in residence halls that have been dark for far too long.
All students are making their first stop Cordiner Hall, where a well-drilled team guides them through a self-administered COVID-19 test. Showing off their “I've been tested” stickers, eager students are moving into their residence hall rooms, with no more than one family member or friend assisting.
Spring Semester 2021 will start like no other before it. On-campus students will spend the next two weeks quarantining in their rooms, leaving only to use the restroom, grab to-go meals from Cleveland Commons or Jewett Cafe, pick up their mail, or to get some exercise or fresh air outdoors—always wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing. A “quarientation” team has planned many virtual or outdoor events to make the most of this time, build community and set students up for a successful semester. Students who live off-campus are also required to follow quarantine protocols. After seven days, the entire Whitman community (students, faculty and staff) will have COVID-19 testing again, and then classes will begin, with the first week entirely online while the 14-day quarantine continues.
Arriving at this moment has involved an extraordinary team effort, led by our Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey and the Vice President for Enrollment and Communications Josh Jensen. They have been assisted by faculty and staff too numerous to name—it's absolutely true that it took a village to get us to this point. We know that same village, including our students, will have to work collaboratively to keep all of us healthy and safe for the duration of the semester.
Many people have asked why we decided to reopen at a point when viral rates were higher than they were at the end of July when we moved the fall semester entirely online. The primary difference is our access to robust testing. The lack of any national plan for testing genuinely hurt us in the fall. Our team had to identify our own source of testing at significant cost. We did it because we knew how important it was to bring students back to campus for as much in-person learning and social engagement as possible during a pandemic.
Now we look forward to widespread availability of vaccines so that we can take the next steps toward whatever our new normal will look like. We are beginning to imagine what will be possible once that day arrives. In the meantime, we continue to count on every member of our community to take responsibility for the health and safety of themselves and others by wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing, washing their hands and avoiding large gatherings.
We're all in this together.
As you take care of yourself and others, I hope you'll spend some quiet downtime with the inspiring Whitman stories in this edition of our magazine. I think you'll find it a particularly beautiful issue with all the marvelous and diverse pieces from the Whitman College Art Collection. Even in tough times, there is solace in the beauty, resilience and creative spirit of our fellow humans.
Kathleen M. Murray