This is part 1 of a 3-part blog series on how higher education is adapting its practices during the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington State and King County. This series covers in-person learning, remote learning, and equity practices.

This time last year, King County colleges and universities were preparing for students’ arrivals on campus. This year, local higher education institutions are doing the same with the added challenges of an ongoing pandemic. For many, the college experience involves some potentially COVID-risky activities: living in dorms, eating at dining halls, attending lectures, and studying in libraries. This fall, higher education institutions are grappling with how to balance quality education with the health and safety of students, faculty and staff. Collaboration between Public Health and local colleges has allowed for questions, discussion, and support as they determine how to achieve this balance. 

What will look different this year

Each college campus has needed to consider changes to “business as usual” in everything from remote learning (discussed in Part 2 of this blog series) to dining halls and student housing. How each college implements these changes will vary depending on their student body, programs offered, or available services.  

For colleges with on-campus housing, COVID-19 poses risks for residential and student life. Shoreline Community College (SCC) is just one local institution that has implemented strategies to ensure students’ health and safety. SCC student housing has reduced the number of students living together, increased frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces, and closed community spaces that promote gatherings.

Outside the residence halls, the college has redesigned many of the usual student engagement activities. Sundi Musnicki, Director of Student Leadership & Residential Life at SCC, says: “We have had to shift to focus on remote or virtual engagement for students. The Office of Student Life has worked to plan different activities that allow students to interact with each other and receive important information related to their academic and social development.” Musnicki describes virtual resource fairs, game nights, fitness class samplers, and DIY craft kits for students to enjoy. 

Other local colleges that don’t offer on-campus housing are making decisions about what services they can offer in-person and what needs to stay remote. Renton Technical College (RTC) has incorporated COVID-19 prevention practices into all classrooms and labs, including for its career training programs requiring hands-on learning, such as health care, welding, and autobody. Lecture courses remain online, but over the summer, RTC reintroduced in-person labs following specific safety protocol. Students and instructors stay six feet (two meters) apart, wear masks at all times, and regularly sanitize their work areas. Notably, there has been no on-campus COVID transmission at RTC with these adaptations. RTC continues to keep the library and student centers closed, but all services such as tutoring and behavioral health are available through remote options. 

Health and safety is the top priority 

When any student returns to school this fall, know that your higher ed institution has your health and safety at the forefront. Renton Technical College’s Katherine Hedland Hansen, Executive Director of College Relations & Marketing, wants students to know that: “We are doing everything we can to keep people safe. Things have changed, and the way that we do things has changed, but what hasn’t changed is our commitment to students and their success.” 

King County’s higher education institutions are doing the unprecedented to ensure the health and safety of their students and faculty. They have developed COVID-19 response plans and safety protocol, adapted curriculum for online learning, and found creative ways to meet both student’s expectations and COVID safety criteria.  

What you can do if you’re returning to campus this fall 

Colleges and universities have spent the past six months determining the best ways to continue serving students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, but the responsibility to prevent spread does not rest solely on them. If you are planning on being on a college campus this fall, remember to follow public health guidance and any direction from the college or university.

In addition to wearing a mask and frequently washing your hands, it will be extremely important to avoid large gatherings. Parties and events (especially if they involve a lot of people and are indoors) are known to spread COVID-19. Keeping gatherings to a minimum – whether they are study groups or weekend hangs – will have a tremendous impact on how COVID-19 spreads, or doesn’t spread, through a college’s community.  

Despite changes to student life, Musnicki says: “Students, faculty, and staff here have demonstrated great care and compassion for each other during this time, which I am confident has made all the difference as we continue to work through this ever-evolving situation.” This fall, life at local colleges and universities will certainly look different, but everyone who steps on a college campus (either in reality or virtually) has the ability to protect their peers and community by doing their part to protect one another from COVID-19.

To learn more about the ways higher education is adapting during this pandemic, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s to review their guidance for colleges and universities.

Originally Published September 28, 2020.