PULLMAN — Washington State University’s Pullman campus announced Thursday it will not offer face-to-face classes in the fall.

According to a news release sent Thursday afternoon, all undergraduate courses will be delivered at a distance because of “the alarming rise in the number of COVID-19 cases regionally and nationally.”

WSU spokesman Phil Weiler noted even without students in town, local cases are on the rise and health care capacity in the region is limited. At the end of the day, he said, WSU just could not guarantee that students, staff and faculty would be safe if they returned to campus in the fall.

“We are, today, in a much different place with the pandemic than we were even just a month ago,” Weiler said. “We see in the state of Washington that our numbers are very high and they’re only going up — the curve is definitely going in the wrong direction.”

Weiler said the university will at least be better prepared to deliver a higher quality of remote instruction. Following the abrupt shift from traditional classes to distance learning in the spring semester, he said cohorts of faculty members have been meeting on a weekly basis with an aim toward enhancing the delivery of online classes.

“The expectation all along was we were going to have to have a stepped-up virtual learning experience,” he said. “Now it just means we’re going to have to be almost all virtual.”

Weiler said on-campus residents, already expected to be down to around 4,000 from the usual 6,000, will now be just a fraction of that. The short list of students that will be allowed to live on campus include those whose scholarships require it, international students and students who do work study to pay for college, among others, Weiler said.

Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson said having students in town is a huge boon to the local economy and lends an air of vibrancy to the region. However, he said, there is also concern that a huge, sudden influx of young people during a pandemic could contribute to conditions that overwhelm the health care system.

Johnson said the move will be a big blow to Pullman businesses, but with the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continuing to balloon locally and nationally — especially among people in their 20s — the school was left with little choice. This was not an arbitrary decision, he said.

“They have taken the Pullman economy into account when they’ve been making these decisions,” Johnson said. “They were trying to have the graduation here ... to try and help the businesses, but that didn’t work out, and they were trying to have fall classes back but the numbers have not cooperated.”

Following the WSU announcement, the University of Idaho released a statement of its own saying the move has not caused the UI to reconsider plans to resume face-to-face classes in the fall. The release said all planning and decision-making “will continue to be science based and guided by data and advice from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”

“While we understand and can appreciate the factors that led to WSU’s decision, we remain committed to and are planning to be open for in-person classes this fall,” the statement said. “We continue to implement a robust set of safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on the Moscow campus and to provide the safest possible learning environment for students, faculty and staff.”

Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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