David Ruiz (PO ’23)
I, along with three other students from the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, was scheduled to attend the University of Washington’s Model EU conference in Seattle this weekend. As headlines from Washington worsened over the course of the week, my colleagues and I became deeply concerned about the status of the conference. Our worries were especially centered on UW’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in Seattle, and they only deepened as the university insisted that the conference go on despite the health crisis.
There are many ways to aid in the response to coronavirus, and alarmism is not one of them. On the other hand, reckless behavior cannot be reframed to seem rational, especially for institutions with the power to take swift action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Even as a student at Pomona College, I have been personally affected by UW’s inaction on coronavirus and I know that Seattleites will also feel its impact if it continues.
UW’s status as an institution responsible for 47,000 students across the state puts it in a prime position to be an example of action in the face of a public health crisis. While its groundbreaking medical efforts are commendable, its decision to continue hosting events such as the West Coast Model EU conference from March 6-7, “…bringing together undergraduate students from across the United States”, is highly irresponsible and blatantly disregard of the will of at least 25,000 members of the student body who have signed a growing petition to close UW’s Seattle campus. Not only is this decision to barrel ahead with events such as the Model EU conference ill-advised, but it also jeopardizes the health and safety of the students and faculty planning to visit, as well as that of the campuses they will return to on Sunday.
Universities, by nature, are highly communal institutions that can often serve as hotbeds for seasonal illnesses due to their high density and social essence. Getting a cold or the stomach flu is basically a rite of passage for residential students, and even at schools with significant commuter populations, the proximity of thousands of students alone makes America’s college campuses the next battleground to fight the transmission of COVID-19.
It is not college students becoming ill that worries me so much as it is the fact that many of them in the coming weeks will return to their homes or go on vacation, coming into contact with relatives, friends, and strangers for whom this virus is a great danger.
Schools such as Stanford have been proactive and efficient in their suspension of travel, conferences, and speaker series. My own school, which has a significant population of Seattleites, has been quick to pull funding for conferences domestic and international, encouraging students and staff to travel only when essential. However, actions like those, especially for colleges and universities responsible directly for the health and wellbeing of their thousands of young students must be the absolute minimum response to this crisis. As the steady drip of this virus trickles its way into every corner of our nation, it is only a matter of time before colleges are faced with mounting cases among students and staff.
Now is not the time to assess possible financial ramifications for the closure of spaces and cancellation. Rather, it is the time for institutions of higher learning to fulfill their most basic duty: the preservation of the health and safety of their students and staff.
Inaction, however well-intended, is not going to work this time, and the stakes are too high for schools like UW and others to continue humming along as though this issue is going to seemingly resolve itself. Now is the time for UW to approach this simple dilemma of immediate cost versus long-term benefit, and put the college and Seattle communities first by making the protection of its community clear in word and deed.