Asthma and ashy rooms: Students say Willamette’s smoke response was inadequate
Updated: Oct 10
Clarifications added Oct. 2 and Oct. 6- see bottom of page.
The presence of COVID-19 on campus has been a source of stress for many students that have chosen to come back to Salem for school. In recent weeks, however, an additional stress was added to the lives of students: smoke coming in from the Beachie Creek fire. Throughout the periods of smoke, Willamette provided some information on precautions that should be taken and what impact the smoke has for on-campus students and staff members. Students expressed frustration and confusion surrounding how to interpret these messages.
The smoke had an impact on many students’ abilities to do day-to-day activities to varying degrees, such as the ability to go to in-person classes or to dine at Goudy. Haley Weinker (‘22) commented on how it was affecting her ability to eat, as well as triggering her asthma. She eventually had to leave campus due to how bad it was, saying,
“there was a layer of ash in my room because my windows didn’t close all the way, and I kind of decided… it’s better for me to just get out for the weekend while I can, and I’m not going to regret it.”
Several other students either left campus or thought about it because of the safety hazards the smoke brought. Brianna Kurtenbach (‘22) provided a similar sentiment to Weinker, saying that she had asthma as well, which prevented her from moving around campus much. “Monday night when the smoke first started to come in, I was already getting headaches and feeling really out of it, breathing was difficult. Then we woke up on Tuesday in the apocalypse, and every other sentence I spoke, I was hacking.” She eventually came to the decision to leave campus for her own safety. Eleanor Stanford (‘22) said that although she thought about leaving campus, she felt like she could wait it out in her house off campus.
Additional concern from students also arose surrounding the administration's actions when it came to ensuring the safety of students and staff. Stanford was unimpressed with Willamette’s unwillingness to provide N95 masks to staff members on campus when they had to work. She said, “I feel like that was something that was like a bare minimum that they could have done.”
There were no N95 mask requests made for faculty and staff. Stanford thought that a request could have been made to provide staff members that chose to work on campus with N95 masks.
Kurtenbach added onto this, saying that she felt there should have been more support for those who did not want to work and those who chose to come in. She said that she thought “they should have been given an option to come in, and if they didn’t come in, to not be penalized for that. And for those who did come in, they were given the proper, to the extreme safety precautions.”
There was also some questioning as to how seriously Willamette was taking the smoke, especially considering the damaging effects of smoke exposure. All three students that were interviewed thought that when Willamette began experiencing haziness on-campus, the school’s reaction came off as very nonchalant. Weinker said that although the school did not completely ignore the situation, “all the homework, courses, everything that we needed to do before, we had to just understand how to do it a different way for the smoke.”
Stanford also talked about a post made on behalf of an official Willamette account (@wubearcats) on Instagram, saying that it showed unnecessary humor during a time when many were panicking. “They posted something about how the orange skies were like an all-natural Instagram filter around campus, which was so insensitive,” Stanford said.
Students also said that the communication between school and student body could have been much clearer. Stanford, being an off campus student, said, “I don’t know what they implemented [on campus] based off of what they were saying. And I kind of wish that was made more clear. Like, I don’t know how bad the air quality was inside the dorms but I feel like that should have been a priority.” She also added that if she was “in [Willamette’s] shoes, put a little more emphasis right away on the threat that it might be posing to students, and not just thinking of it as, “you’re safe if you’re not evacuating.”
Kurtenbach agreed with Stanford’s sentiment regarding the urgency of the situation, saying that the response was “very understated,” and that the school tried to create a sense of normalcy in a time when this was far from the case.
Weinker also stated that the school should have been much more accommodating to the students that were immediately affected by the fires, saying that both the administration and the student body could make better attempts to raise awareness. She shared the story of one student who had lost his home in the fires, saying “if every student posted something about the GoFundMe for the kid who lost his family home, I feel like there could be so much done.”
Clarification added Oct. 2: First sentence was reworded to more accurately reflect the size of COVID-19's presence on campus.
Clarifications added Oct. 6: Handle of WU social media account was added, and Stanford's claim on N95 masks was clarified.