In Whatcom County, individuals ages 18 through 24 had the highest reported number of COVID-19 cases of all age groups between Sep. 19 and Oct. 1.
At the same time, students among that age group were heading back to university, community college and technical college campuses that had been closed to in-person instruction for a year and a half — and where full vaccination against COVID-19 is a now required.
A major question facing health officers, school officials and students remains to be answered: Will the vaccine requirement be enough to contain COVID-19?
Local institutions of higher education are meeting the state requirements that faculty and staff be fully vaccinated, but their responses and protocols for handling the spread of COVID-19 if an outbreak occurs on their campuses vary, and some safety measures are proving to be difficult to enforce.
“I’m in a big lecture hall for my art history class and there are a couple of kids who, two years into this thing, still don’t know how to wear a mask properly,” Western Washington University (WWU) senior Charleigh Nogler said. “But it’s too big, really, for the professor to enforce something like that. I feel like students still have a weird thing where they don’t want to snitch on each other.”
WWU instituted a COVID-19 clearance tracking system through the MyWesternHealth homepage, which color-codes individual students’ COVID-19 status based on their vaccination status or if they have been exposed to the virus.
In December 2020, the university updated its policy on communicable diseases. On Oct. 7, Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services Melynda Huskey wrote to the campus community:
“Students and employees who know, or who have reason to believe, that they are infected with a communicable disease have an ethical and legal obligation to conduct themselves in ways that minimize exposure in order to protect themselves and others and to inform the appropriate university administrator.”
Whatcom Community College follows the requirements of the governor’s mandate to ensure their status as fully vaccinated campus. Though the college has not implemented additional safety measures, administrative policy states that specific programs reserve the right to do so. Director for Campus Safety and Security Raquel Vernola will report any known cases of COVID-19 on campus on the college’s information page.
In addition to following the governor’s proclamation, Bellingham Technical College requires all unvaccinated students or employees to wear a KN-95 respirator.
Skagit Valley College (SVC) requires students to demonstrate their vaccination status by Nov. 8, the latest of all the local institutions. It does not have a detailed vaccination policy or COVID-19 response plan posted on its website.
Laura Daniali, the director of marketing and communications at SVC, wrote in an email, “Many colleges in our system extended the date for timing reasons with the implementation of ctcLink — a new, online statewide system — and our ability to effectively communicate with students during this time. We also wanted students to have an ample amount of time to get fully vaccinated.”
Daniali said that, at this time, the college is not requiring unvaccinated students and employees to be tested regularly for COVID-19.
Northwest Indian College has the strictest policy of all the local institutions.
In accordance with Lummi Public Health recommendation, Centers fo Disease Control guidance and the institution’s human resources personnel policy, the college’s COVID-19 Safety Procedure for Campus Operations requires anyone entering campus buildings to undergo a health-screening and sign-in at the entrance. Those who do not pass the health screening or have a temperature over 100.3 degrees will be denied entry. Social distancing in line with CDC requirements is enforced.
When there is a confirmed COVID-19 case, all individuals are evacuated from any building where an infection is confirmed, then the building is deep-cleaned by a housekeeping team wearing surgical face masks, goggles, chemical gloves and medical gowns. Once the deep clean has been completed, employees are allowed reentry to the workspace after 15 minutes.
Looking ahead to fall and winter quarters, each institution has implemented protocols and safety measures specific to their needs, but whether they are effective enough to keep campuses open is yet to be tested. As the days grow shorter, the weather colder and students and faculty huddle inside, every institution states that their top priority is the safety of their students and employees.
It’s a challenge they’ve not faced before.
— Reported by Mallory Biggar
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