The University of Washington announced Friday that in light of the novel coronavirus spreading in the Seattle area, it would close its classrooms and have students take their courses and final exams remotely for the remainder of the winter quarter.
The institution, which enrolls nearly 57,000 students across three campuses, plans to reopen fully March 30, in time for its spring semester, according to its website.
As outbreaks continue, colleges and universities are being urged to develop emergency plans and consider how their infrastructure could handle a potential surge of online students.
The University of Washington's decision to cancel in-person classes and exams represents a major national development in how the coronavirus has affected colleges' operations.
So far, colleges in the U.S. have been minimally affected by the spread of the new coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19. Thus far, institutions have largely held off closing domestic campuses, while more have shut down study abroad programs and international satellites due to the global outbreak.
Officials have confirmed roughly 260 cases of the illness in the U.S. Washington state has been particularly hard hit, with 13 of the 14 deaths in the country related to the coronavirus so far.
University of Washington officials faced pressure to close the campus after a digital petition began circulating calling for its president, Ana Mari Cauce, to close the campus and take classes online. A university employee presumptively tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Friday.
The building where the employee works, on the university's Seattle campus, was closed for cleaning. The institution is instructing all occupants of the Roosevelt Commons East building who came in “close contact” with the unnamed individual to stay home for 14 days after their last interaction with the employee.
Instructors are supposed to continue teaching and administering exams away from campus. But in cases in which that isn't possible, they can submit grades based on the work students have done up to this point, the university said.
Sources told Education Dive this week that colleges should recognize that some students do not have internet access outside campus and that instructors may be unfamiliar with online learning tools. The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is advising institutions to have a robust learning management system in place and to ensure it can handle an influx of students needing to use it.
OLC is among the higher ed groups that have weighed in as concerns about the effects of the coronavirus abound. The American College Health Association (ACHA) published guidelines for institutions this week, focusing on how to prep student health centers in case they identify cases of COVID-19. ACHA also recommended administrators develop emergency plans and a task force that includes a wide range of campus leaders, students and local health officials.
The U.S. Department of Education also this week relaxed some distance learning requirements and has temporarily permitted campuses to use online tools without department approval in order to accommodate students whose coursework has been interrupted by the coronavirus.