On March 13th, President Trump declared a National Emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, but four days earlier, the University of Washington, Seattle, had already made the decision to go fully remote—and was the first college in the nation to do so.
Dr. Denzil J. Suite, Vice-President of Student Life at the University of Washington (UW), and an Advisory Board member of UVM’s Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference recently spoke with us about how UW made their decision to close their campus, how the University has adjusted to the pandemic, and his upcoming conference presentation, October 19, on “COVID-19 on Campus: Lessons Learned So Far,” taking stock of how colleges and universities have approached this unprecedented event.
“COVID-19 is really the most disruptive thing to happen to higher education in recent memory, and literally everything that we’ve known and that we do as a campus is being disrupted because of this pandemic,” Suite said. “And so I think it would be problematic and a glaring admission if the Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference did not address something that every single campus in the nation is dealing with.”
The First College in the Nation to Go Remote
“Once we made that determination to close, within hours—literally within hours—schools were making that announcement saying that’s the direction and then it seemed like almost every single domino in the country fell as a result of that decision,” Suite said. “It wasn’t something that we actually anticipated would result in many other universities following our lead, but we do think for us it was the right thing to do and clearly other universities felt the same.”
Fortunately for the Seattle campus of 48,000 students, the University had some experience with remote learning.
“There were two things that played into our decision-making,” Suite said. “One was that our medical experts were telling us, it’s not a matter of if, but when the virus will manifest itself on our campus, so we were expecting cases within days or weeks following our decision. And the other factor was that we had a once-in-75-year snowstorm about one or two years before the pandemic hit—which was unusual for Seattle—so we had to shift to remote operations at that time, so we knew we had the infrastructure and that gave the confidence to say that this was the right thing to do and that we could continue to give students a robust educational experience. And the response was overwhelmingly positive—and then that was reinforced by the fact that so many other universities very quickly followed suit.”
Suite reports that University officials were pleased with their handling of the pandemic in those early days given the urgency of the situation, allowing students the flexibility to move from a letter grade to a credit/no-credit designation in an effort to refrain from unnecessarily penalizing students who were already burdened with abruptly adjusting to a new learning environment.
“We wanted to keep students focused on learning, rather than simply focused on grades,” Suite said.
Determining How to Move Forward
Enrollment at UW has remained quite strong in spite of the fact that 90% of its classes are being taught online for the fall semester, crediting the flexibility of the faculty and the resilience of the students. Dorms are at less than 50 percent occupancy and they expect to 7-8,000 students on campus this fall.
“We asked faculty, what classes can you absolutely not deliver in a remote fashion and those are the ones that we decided we would offer in-person, primarily because it’s critical for us to ensure that students maintain academic progress,” Suite said, noting that UW has designed its on-campus classes to include precautionary measures such as ensuring that one class doesn’t immediately follow another in the same room, allowing for cleaning, controlling the flow of students between classes, so that one group wouldn’t pass another in the halls.
Outside of the classroom environment, almost all dorms at UW have their own bathrooms, each room is given its own cleaning supplies, and all lounges are closed to discourage students from congregating unnecessarily. UW has also designated over 300 isolation spaces should a student suspect they may have contracted coronavirus, the University has a website with a running count of how many people have been positively identified with COVID-19 in the community, and they have an entire Environmental Health and Safety Office that does contact tracing to ensure that, should a student become infected, anyone they may have come in contact with is alerted and encouraged to get tested.
“Beyond that, we’re putting out volumes of messages to students, faculty, and staff, about preventative efforts they can take which mirrors CDC and public health guidance. We’re taking great precautions to ensure that the learning environment for the limited number of students who are here is as safe as possible.”
UW is already planning to continue with this model for the foreseeable future.
“There is nothing to indicate that a vaccine will be both widespread and effective in time for us to pivot and tell everyone to show up on campus in January,” Suite said. “So at this point, we are planning for the winter quarter to be mostly remote. But hope springs eternal that in the future months we’ll have a widely effective vaccine that will allow for more in-person instruction.”
Dr. Suite to Present at 30th Anniversary UVM Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference
The University of Vermont annually presents one of the nation’s premiere conferences each fall focused on the diverse legal issues impacting all aspects of higher education. The virtual program, October 19-21, features leading experts in Higher Education Law, Student Affairs, and Campus Public Safety.
Through interactive sessions, panel discussions and informal networking opportunities participants learn practical approaches to complex legal situations.
2020 Sessions include:
- COVID Response On Campus: Lessons Learned
- Creating a Wellness Environment (WE) to Promote Health and Reduce Risk
- Extremely Online Students: Recent Trends in Internet Speech and Harassment, and What Title IX (Might) Do About It
- Impacts of the 2020 Election on Higher Education
- Privacy in a Pandemic: FERPA and COVID-19
- Re-Imagining Safety, Security, and Law Enforcement In Educational Settings
- Title IX New Regulations and Implementation: Lessons Learned So Far
- Structuring an Informal Resolutions Process
- Civility, Harassment and Hostile Environments
- COVID-19 In-Person or Virtual Requests for Accommodations: What You Need to Know
- Level Up: An Esports Primer to avoid being a Gaming N00b on Campus
Save your seat for the 2020 Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference.