College campuses were shutting down in March when the number of COVID-19 cases in the US was still in the hundreds. Now, there have been over 6 million cases in the US, including roughly 600,000 new cases in the last 14 days. However, some college campuses are reopening despite the number of cases nationwide consistently increasing. Willamette University's reopening has led many to question whether in-person classes will last for the whole semester or if campus will close at some point in the coming weeks. Based on current statistics and comparing protocols at other universities with protocols at Willamette, a COVID-19 outbreak seems imminent on our campus.
COVID-19 protocols in colleges throughout the country vary in both policy and strictness, but Willamette’s policies are less strict when compared to other schools. The similarly-sized University of Puget Sound and Whitman College, both in Washington, opted for remote learning this semester. Larger schools such as Northeastern University in Boston, MA tests students every three days. Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH requires students to be tested multiple times upon arrival, strictly quarantined for 14 days, and tested at the end of the quarantine and throughout the rest of the school year as well. The majority of universities around the country that are reopening to enable students to live on campus this fall have robust testing and quarantine policy for students.
Willamette’s policies are nowhere near as strict. There is no way for Willamette and its students to know who has COVID-19, whether symptomatic or not, upon arrival to campus since they do not do broader population testing. While there is a good quarantine policy in place for individuals who test positive, there is no required quarantine period for students upon arrival to the school. Furthermore, students could feel sick, but choose not to get tested. Nobody would know whether or not they had COVID-19 since testing is not mandatory and they could unknowingly spread the virus to other students. Since this is the current climate of testing, it can be scary for students to voluntarily test. It's also appalling that students must exhibit symptoms in order to get a test, given that a CDC study showed that nearly two-thirds of the COVID-19 transmissions in the USA come from asymptomatic carriers. Knowing this, to minimize and even eliminate the spread of the virus, identifying and isolating asymptomatic carriers is critical since they can spread COVID-19 completely unknowingly.
College students are going to be college students whether they are told otherwise or not. Social distancing and mask policies should be followed, but they have already been broken. Schools like University of North Carolina Chapel Hill saw 135 cases in the first week of school and shut themselves down. While WU may not be as large as UNC or engage in as many violations of social distancing, it is likely that the virus is unknowingly spreading or has spread to students.
Professors Basu and Millen, who teach courses in Public Health, provided a statement on their perspective regarding the matter: “To date, given that current evidence indicates that a person who tests positive (who presents with or without symptoms) is only able to transmit the virus over the first 14 days, and that we are now 16-21 days through the semester, the university community would appear to have mitigated adequately the risks associated with opening and coming together. While it is wonderful that we have decreased risks, Basu and Millen also urge caution, ‘this isn’t to say that there won’t be an outbreak.’”
Students agree on this matter as well. Payton Ives ‘24 and Tara Tosheff ‘24 stated, “2-4 weeks” and “4-6 weeks” when asked the question of when we will be sent to remote learning. Some are more optimistic—Lane Mikkelsen ‘24 believes we will be able to make it through the whole semester without an outbreak since we have made it through the first few weeks without one. While it would be tragic if in-person classes had to be shut down, the lack of robust testing and a mandatory quarantine period, students easily being able to violate the guidelines of social distancing and the fact that COVID-19 has spread on many other college campuses all combine to make it no stretch of the imagination that an outbreak at WU is unavoidable.