U Washington moves all classes online to beat coronavirus

The University of Washington (UW), Seattle, has become the first major United States university to halt in-person teaching and move all classes online in order to minimise spread of the coronavirus. The transition was announced by President Ana Mari Cauce, after consultation with public health officials, on Friday 6 March.

On the same day it was announced that a UW staff member had received a presumptive positive test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel virus.

From Monday 9 March and for the remainder of the quarter, instructors have been asked to conduct classes and-or exams remotely, as possible, until the quarter concludes on 20 March. In addition, final exams will not be conducted in person but may be conducted online when feasible and at the instructor’s discretion.

UW, a public university with nearly 50,000 students, is located in the Seattle area, which has become the epicentre of the outbreak of the virus on the US West Coast, with 70 confirmed cases in Washington State and 11 deaths so far, according to CNBC. As of Friday morning, this compared to 233 cases nationwide and 14 deaths.

In a message to faculty on Friday 6 March, Cauce said: “The last week or so has been difficult as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has gained a foothold in our region and country. Thank you for the calm, resilience and care that you have demonstrated toward each other, as well as toward our students, patients and communities, as we work together to minimise the impact of the virus on our state.

“Our focus remains keeping this community healthy as we fulfil our important educational, research and service mission.”

Social-distancing steps

“Evolving public health recommendations indicate our best course of action is to take additional social-distancing steps to support the region’s efforts against this outbreak and conclude this quarter in an orderly and cohesive way for our students and instructors.”

The UW employee who tested presumptive positive is currently in self-isolation at home and the building where the employee works has been shut down for cleaning.

All occupants of the building who were in close contact with the ill employee have been notified and are asked to stay home for 14 days since their last contact with them, according to a message posted on 6 March by Geoffrey S Gottlieb, interim chair of the UW Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, and medical director of the UW environmental health and safety department.

Cauce said instructors were being asked to conduct classes and-or exams remotely, as possible, until the quarter concludes on 20 March. “In some cases, when the nature of a class is not suited for remote delivery, other options, including submitting grades based on work conducted to this point, may be used.”

Fair recognition of work

She said: “Our goal is to make sure that students’ academic work is fairly recognised and that any disruption does not present a disadvantage to their future academic progress, including admission to their preferred major in the months or years to come.

In a message to faculty and graduate students at the university’s campuses, Mark Richards, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and Joseph Janes, chair of faculty senate, said: “These actions are being taken in response to recommendations from public health agencies to avoid bringing large groups of people together in close proximity for events and gatherings.

“If events and gatherings are held, best practices such as social distancing are encouraged. In-person classes qualify as events, and the sizes of our classrooms do not generally allow for social distancing.”

Cauce said the transition to online would have the additional benefit of providing UW’s facilities crews additional time to deep clean classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, restrooms and other public spaces, as is their standard practice.