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UW shifts to online classes to protect students and staff from the novel coronavirus

Cherry trees bloom on the University of Washington campus, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Cherry trees bloom on the University of Washington campus, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Seattle.

The University of Washington, which has more than 57,000 students and more than 4,300 faculty members across its campuses and facilities, will no longer hold class in person starting Monday. This extends to all campuses through the end of the quarter on March 20, in an effort to protect people from the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The university said classes and final exams will be conducted remotely as much as possible. In addition, the university said a staff member who works in the Roosevelt Commons East building received a “presumptive positive” test for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus, which originated in China and has since spread around the globe. That person is self-isolated at home. The building has been closed for cleaning.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce said she had already made the decision to shift classes online before getting word of the employee’s diagnosis.

“We took our actions with the abundance of caution and being very aware that in many of our classrooms, students are sitting in very close proximity to each other,” she said.

In a statement, the university said it decided to no longer hold class in person because health officials are recommending that people avoid gathering in large groups and should practice social distancing, which is difficult in university classrooms. Cauce said the plan is to start normal, in-person instruction again next quarter, which begins March 30.

Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University also said they will no longer hold class in person starting Monday. Both said they have had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on their campuses.

The University of Washington has campuses in Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma. Its campuses will remain open, including hospitals, clinics, dining services, residence halls, and recreation and athletics facilities, the university said. Huskies athletic events will still be held as scheduled.

Cauce said the university is providing advice to campus groups on when to cancel events, but she said keeping campus open allows important work to continue, including efforts by UW scientists to develop a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus.

Shifting to online classes, though, will allow facilities crews to deep clean classrooms and other spaces.

More than 26,000 people had signed an online petition asking Cauce to close the campus. But Daniel Radu, a 21-year-old senior from Redmond, said he’s started carrying hand sanitizer with him but hadn’t taken it too seriously until now.

“I didn’t personally think it was such a big deal, but yeah, getting that email today was like, OK, maybe it’s a bigger deal than I thought,” Radu said.

Radu is majoring in architecture design and said some of his classes are hard to do online. For example, he’s building a steel and leather sling chair for a furniture class and has to use wood shop and metal shop machinery.

Professors are busy figuring out how to shift classes and exams online. Richard Wright, chair of the linguistics department, said he had already started preparing for this eventuality. He knows colleagues in Italy, which has been hit even harder by coronavirus, who have moved to online instruction due to the outbreak.

Wright said for one of his classes, he’s adapted how students will present their final projects.

“We’re going to move that to being completely virtual,” he said. “So they’re all going to log in on Thursday morning at 8:30 and they’re going to put their PowerPoint slides up and talk about their projects, and then students are going to take turns giving them feedback virtually instead of in person.”

He said giving exams online can be tricky because in the past, students have taken photos of exam answers and then put them online to share with other students, enabling cheating. That means professors can’t use the same exams again in the future.

The Seattle region is the hardest hit of any spot in the U.S. so far. The state’s Department of Health says there have been 12 deaths — 11 in King County — and 79 confirmed positive cases. Around the globe, the World Health Organization said on Thursday that there have been more than 95,000 confirmed cases, with more than 80,000 of those in China. The virus has spread to 86 countries.

Meanwhile, school districts have largely kept schools open based on guidance from Public Health — Seattle & King County. Health officials have said COVID-19 poses less of a health risk to children. But families have increasingly put pressure on school districts to close, saying that children could bring the illness home and spread it to vulnerable family members. 

This story was updated at 5 p.m. March 6.