The University of Washington on Friday became the first university in the U.S. to announce that it would halt in-person classes and exams, in hopes that that will slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Hours later, Seattle University made a similar decision.
Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control issued interim guidance on Friday for higher education institutions to plan, prepare and respond for coronavirus cases.
Starting on Monday, March 9, no in-person classes or exams will be held at the University of Washington through the end of the quarter, which wraps on March 20. Officials plan to resume normal classroom schedules at the start of next quarter, on March 30. To date, Washington state has seen about 75 confirmed cases of coronavirus.
“I am not saying it is not safe to be in class,” said the University of Washington’s president, Ana Mari Cauce, during a press event on Friday that was streamed online. “This action was taken with an abundance of caution, aware that in many of our classrooms students are sitting in very close proximity to each other.”
The campus will remain open, and officials expect that many students will remain on campus—though others are expected to return home. The university has more than 47,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
Officials sent an email to all faculty and graduate students at the university on Friday saying that exams “may be conducted online where feasible, at the instructor’s discretion.”
The email, from provost Mark Richards and the chair of the faculty senate, Joseph Janes, said it is up to each professor to determine whether classes can move online, or whether there is enough student work already to assign a fair letter grade at the end of the quarter.
As the message notes: “We ask that you provide your students with maximum flexibility as you accommodate these changes, and that decisions be based upon fairness and what is most supportive of students. We should seek to minimize anxieties for our students to the extent possible, especially anxieties related to how these actions might impact student progress to degree and future career prospects.”
Decisions on whether or not to travel to previously scheduled meetings or conferences are being left up to individual faculty and staff members, said Cauce, the university’s president. She herself has decided to cancel a planned trip on Monday to San Francisco, and to attend the meeting by videoconference instead.
The university’s president added that even while officials plan to reopen on March 30, they are also planning for the contingency that next quarter’s courses may have to shift to online delivery “for a week or two.”
“We have every intention of reopening next quarter, but I don't have a crystal ball,” she said. “I can’t say where we’ll be at in three weeks with COVID-19.”
Officials said that the decision to halt in-person classes was made even before the discovery that one staff member had tested positive for coronavirus and is in self-isolation at home.
Cauce said the goal was to make decisions based on evidence rather than fear. “We believe in making science based decisions,” she said. “We're trying to empower people to make good decisions.”
The new CDC guidance, meanwhile, calls on colleges to review and update their emergency plans, ensure effective hand washing strategies are followed, share information with other institutions, review plans to communicate with their communities should outbreaks happen, and review related resources issued by the CDC.