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Meske at Capacity

Meske at Capacity

Walla Walla University’s Covid Response 

By Matthew Peinado 

Upon returning from winter break, students of Walla Walla University were forced into the most infectious phase of the pandemic yet. COVID-19 cases surged on campus causing Meske hall, which was used as a quarantine for exposed students and those who tested positive, to overfill.  

The Collegian requested interviews and sent questions to members of WWU’s administration, but each attempt at communication was either denied or unanswered. Thus, only official correspondence and postings could be used for piecing together the University’s response. 

On December 30th, 2021, President John McVay sent an email to all students. This email gave an update to students on several things with a COVID-19 update near the end. The email conveyed four key points about COVID-19. Masks must be worn indoors in WWU public spaces. Testing may be required for some individuals before returning to campus. A link and encouragement were provided for students who are ill to report their symptoms. Lastly, an update for unvaccinated staff members that weekly testing may be required. [1] 

Within the first few days of students returning from winter break, COVID-19 numbers increased on campus. Students who tested positive moved into Meske hall to quarantine. While student concerns grew, no information came from administration until Tuesday, January 4th during an entirely in-person CommUnity. During CommUnity, Assistant Vice President of Student Life David Iwasa announced there would be an email from President McVay later that day providing information on COVID-19.  

Some students found this ironic considering the announcement for this email was given while being in-person at CommUnity where most of the student body was packed into the university church. Ben White, junior communications major, said, “It felt weird because we knew the email would be Covid related but we were all still meeting in person for that announcement.” [2]  

McVay started his January 4th email by saying, “Our COVID-19 positive numbers are higher than anticipated (10-12%), and we must take action right now to increase the likelihood of being able to enjoy winter quarter activities in the coming weeks.” The email continued to express the need for students to wear masks indoors, limit gatherings, and for students to keep their distance from each other. [3] 

Additionally, the email contained a link for testing and several new guidelines for students to follow until January 14 at the least. Among the guidelines was a restriction of WWU activities that allowed eating indoors, making the cafeteria the only school-sanctioned place to eat in a closed space. A postponing of close-range activities without COVID-19 testing protocols and making it a goal to “Preserve in-person attendance for essential functions, such as classes or other gatherings central to WWU’s mission,” were also among the guidelines. [4] 

In the following days, COVID-19 cases surged even greater on campus with no guidance or official communication from the University until Sunday. On Sunday, January 9th, McVay sent another email.  

This email, which was sent at the start of the second week of winter quarter, offered the most resources and information. Once again, students were informed that eating would be limited to the cafeteria. Students were provided an email address to report other students who did not comply with masking rules. It also informed students that the University would provide rapid COVID-19 tests by appointment only. [5] 

This differs from many schools across the country, including Pacific Union College and La Sierra University, the two closest Seventh-Day Adventist universities to WWU. PUC required all students to test negative within 72-hours for PCR tests or 48-hours for rapid tests before returning to campus. All residence hall students received a follow-up test seven days later. [6] 

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Additionally, PUC required N-95, KN-95, or 3-ply surgical masks to be worn by students the first week of classes while WWU has only recommended the usage of these higher quality masks. [7] La Sierra opted to make the first three weeks of school entirely online to prevent a COVID-19 surge on campus. [8] 

McVay ended his email by offering some insight into WWU’s decision-making process. “We are dealing with a rapidly changing situation, one where full elimination of all risk is no longer possible.” [9] 

Students went another four days without any communication from the University while more people were quarantined. On January 13, the University uploaded a video titled Winter 2022 Covid Update on YouTube. In the video, President McVay spoke about the COVID-19 crisis on campus. At the time, COVID-19 cases were near their peak which was over 80 active confirmed cases. President McVay expressed the need for students to properly mask and reduce social interactions yet insisted classes would continue in person. McVay claimed that through contact tracing, the University has found that students were spreading COVID-19 through interactions with friends and acquaintances rather than University sanctioned events. [10] 

Week of worship took place the second week of school and was entirely online out of concern of COVID-19 spread. After the succeeding communities also being online, the Martin Luther King Jr. CommUnity on January 18th was offered both online and in person. However, only students who wore N95 masks which the University provided 100 of, could attend CommUnity in person. The following CommUnity on the 25th was only offered in person, and the school offered KN95 to every student entering the church. 

The University’s desire to keep the level of ‘normality’ it held throughout Fall quarter may have impacted the number of COVID-19 cases at WWU’s College Place campus. However, cases also surged nationally during this time and WWU was not an outlier in its case count. [11] While cases surged on campus, students went days at a time without any official instruction or updates from the University. No required testing for all students, no quarantine for all students, and only online options for large events like CommUnity and vespers after the COVID-19 surge had already begun to peak and those options are seemingly going away. As of January 25, 2022, WWU has had 155 confirmed cases during winter quarter. Fall quarter had 17. [12] 

References 

  1. Email from John McVay, 12/30/2021. 
  1. Interview with Ben White, 1/24/2022. 
  1. Email from John McVay, 1/4/2022. 
  1. Ibid
  1. Email from John McVay, 1/9/2022. 
  1. Pacific Union College. (n.d.). Campus plan. Pacific Union Collegehttps://www.puc.edu/academics/campus-plan  
  1. Ibid
  1. The first three weeks of winter quarter will be online. (2022). La Sierra Universityhttps://lasierra.edu/#modal-30925   
  1. Email from John McVay 1/9/2022. 
  1. Walla Walla University. (2022). Winter 2022 covid update [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P71Q4T9kga8 
  1. New York Times (2022). Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest map and case count. New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html  
  1. COVID-19 cases. (2022). Walla Walla University. https://www.wallawalla.edu/news/covid-19-response-information/covid-19-cases/ 
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