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University of Washington switches to virtual classes after staff member tests positive for coronavirus

While in-person classes and exams at the University of Washington will be closed for the rest of the quarter to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the school said its dorms, dining halls, hospitals and clinics will keep operating. Above, a library at the Seattle campus. (Stuart Isett/For The Washington Post)

The University of Washington will not hold in-person classes or exams for the remainder of the quarter, the first large university to take such a step in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The campuses remain open, with dorms, dining halls, hospitals and clinics operating.

Seattle University also announced Friday that it would rely on virtual classes for the rest of the winter quarter, and Lake Washington Institute of Technology near Seattle announced it was moving to remote operations until March 20.

“People are feeling very relieved,” said Kelty Pierce, a senior and the president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington. “This is something that people have been asking for all week.”

The move to virtual classes — for at least the rest of the month — was a dramatic shift by university leaders in the response to the threat and probably is a sign of changes to come at other schools as they contend with a rapidly changing global situation.

Colleges throughout the nation have been bracing for the possibility of an influx of cases as the coronavirus spreads. As the Seattle region began reporting some of the first cases of infection — and the first death — in the United States last week, many University of Washington students and others worried they would not be safe in classrooms at the large public university, which has more than 55,000 students at three campuses.

An online petition calling for the university to be closed had more than 26,000 digital signatures Friday.

Earlier this week, several cases of the infection were confirmed among people connected with other colleges. When a student tested positive for the virus, Yeshiva University in New York canceled classes at its Washington Heights and Midtown campuses until after March 10. On Friday, Yeshiva’s president announced that a rabbi who teaches two classes had tested positive but did not have symptoms.

In Maryland, where three cases were confirmed Thursday, the leader of the public university system announced Friday that he was directing schools to verify they could switch to online operations quickly if needed and to reduce, when possible, large gatherings.

Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, emphasized in a statement that he was not shutting down classes and offices or issuing a mandate to cancel events. “I am advising that we be smart, and apply our best judgment to a situation that is changing hourly,” he wrote.

At Rice University in Houston, classes and normal operations continued Friday after a staff member tested positive. The employee and the faculty, graduate students and staff members who had contact with the infected worker remained in quarantine, and school officials announced that they would relocate classes held in the building where that person had been last week.

Two colleges close, another cancels classes and others brace for coronavirus impact on campus

Universities can take an array of measures to reduce the risk of transmission, said Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer at the University of Southern California and a member of the American College Health Association’s coronavirus task force. That includes encouraging washing hands frequently and staying home if sick, she said. Other measures will be directed at keeping people away from large gatherings, including canceling events, holding classes online and having people work from home.

“The larger the setting, the more people, the closer they are together, if food is served, the longer they’re together, all those things make it easier for it to spread,” she said.

For several weeks, University of Washington officials had been reassuring the campus that they were following the guidance of public health officials, that no recommendation had been made to cancel classes and that there had been no cases of the disease on campus. Four people there tested negative for the virus last month. With a large hospital and several thousand students living in dorms, the campus never really closes, Victor Balta, a spokesman for the university and a member of the its Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, said earlier this week.

But the school announced Friday that a staff member had a presumptive positive test result for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. The staff member, who is at home, has not been in the off-campus building where the employee works since last week, according to a letter to the campus from Geoffrey Gottlieb, a professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases who is interim chair of the school’s disease advisory committee. The building has been closed for cleaning.

Most classes have an online component, and school officials had been working to ramp up their ability to teach online.

The Daily, a campus newspaper, reported faculty members were switching to virtual teaching before the university mandated the change, including a history teacher who made a video of her lecture Thursday after worrying her coughing had been making students uncomfortable.

The decision was starting to feel inevitable, said Joseph Janes, associate professor with the university’s Information School and chairman of the Faculty Senate. “There was a slow but steady rise of anxious concern and questions about this,” he said. “For a lot of people, this will let the air out of the balloon.”

He canceled his late-afternoon class Friday, a tiny graduate class in statistics, to relieve students’ anxieties, and was thinking through modified virtual classes and whether he could squeeze in more material or would need to cut some. “So if I don’t get to multiple regression next week, I don’t get to multiple regression,” he said.

Some students were still worried about classes with labs or participation requirements, such as drama, Pierce said, and some were frustrated that classes continued to meet Friday. But most students she had heard from were grateful the university had made the change, she said.

“Some students wanted quicker action, but they’re definitely happy with the response now,” said Ana Osorno, another student government leader.

When the spring quarter begins March 30, the school is expected to resume normal operations, officials told the campus, “pending public health guidance.”

Now the question, Janes said, is, “What next?”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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