OPINION: Students, admin are both to blame for COVID spike

It’s easy to point fingers, but WSU admin, students should bear equal responsibility



It’s tempting to cast blame on one group, but students and admin are both equally responsible for the COVID-19 problems in Pullman.

MEGHAN HENRY, Evergreen managing editor

As COVID-19 cases rise dramatically in the Pullman, people are beginning to point fingers, and many are choosing sides. In most people’s minds, it’s either the students or the administration who should take the blame for the sudden jump.

But with such last-minute decisions made by the university, and many plans riding on hundreds of 18-22-year-olds, it isn’t fair to place blame on only one side.

Students had only weeks to find someone to take their leases over if they chose not to come back, and if they did return to campus, testing had so many hoops to jump through that it was hardly worth it. Some students were laughed off the phone when they called, symptomless, for a test. Others waited weeks for results, making a positive or negative pointless.

But as the situation develops in Pullman, I have seen students continue to take responsibility for their own health and learned more of the work our administration and community leadership did in preparation for this semester, as well as their continued work to make Pullman safer and healthier.

It’s not just about perception — they are doing the work to make sure the students who have to be here are as safe as possible.

Some have questioned the university’s choice to open housing on campus, claiming it is all based on money. Revenue may have been a consideration, but Dean of Students Jill Creighton said WSU is at a 15 percent capacity compared to a normal school year.

Had the university been focused solely on loss of income from students, they would have opened back up for in-person classes and full-capacity university housing.

“The students that we invited to live in student housing this fall had a demonstrated institutional need, and we had set up specific criteria on what that meant because we also know that, for some students, we are the permanent home,” Creighton said. “In support of students and in advocating for students, we knew that some students just really needed to be here. That was something we were committed to provide.”

Clearly, our university’s administration has at least one priority in check.

Cases have steadily risen since the beginning of school, and there are now more than 1,000 positive test results in Whitman County alone. (ANISSA CHAK)

On the other hand, as easy as it may be to blame students’ immaturity for the quick rise in cases, there is little anyone could do to prevent it. Where there are large groups of people congregating to live, there will also be an increase in contact.

“If people had a lease signed, they were gonna come back,” said Parker Harrison, junior kinesiology major. “The university wasn’t gonna stop the outbreak from happening.”

It is unrealistic to believe so many kids who have been stuck in their homes and isolated from their college friends for months would simply continue to do that once they were given some freedom. But, no one in Pullman expected them to.

“We’re trying to meet you all where you are able to hear,” Creighton said.

Rather than setting them free to create their own rules, the school worked with students directly to create programs and educational sites that would actually connect with them — specifically Cougs Cancel COVID.

“Cougs Cancel COVID is a public health campaign,” Creighton said. “This is not something the administration just invented out of thin air. This is something that was researched and field tested with students.”

The creators of the campaign came together with those students, asking questions that enabled the movement to tailor its voice to one that students would listen to. It created a platform that encourages students to share their stories of why they wear a mask and has even created physical reminders of the movement’s goal: to keep Cougs healthy.

“There are signs all over the physical WSU campus right now, reminding folks to wash their hands, or to wear their mask, or there are some funnier signs … like, ‘Practice Safe Six,’ like six feet of distance!” Creighton said.

This is radically offset from the approach so many universities are taking. Rather than condescending emails and reactive punitive measures, the school is taking the steps necessary to shepherd its young students through this unprecedented time.

“We do not want to blame and shame our students,” Creighton said, “but we do want them to make the right choices.”

Not only are they advocating for us, but they are also listening to us. Rather than telling us what we shouldn’t do or simply shaming us into following rules, they are educating students on what we should do, and why.

“We have not seen blame or shame be a successful tactic for public health in any public health situation,” Creighton said. “For anti-smoking or anti-Juuling or wearing a seatbelt or not texting while driving … when we lead with blame and shame, we see less willingness to do what we’re supposed to do.”

While this is an incredibly patient approach, the WSU administration does have a clear plan on the next steps for what they call “egregious, reckless and repeated” behavior. Similar to the Greek community’s CORE (COVID Organization Response Expectations), the university’s administration has proactively set expectations for students who would inevitably come back to the campus this semester – even for a weekend.

“If we see students engaging in repeated, reckless and egregious behavior related to public health compliance with COVID-19, that’s when we’re going to get the conduct process rolling,” Creighton said. “But that’s not where we want to start.”

Rather than jumping straight to meetings with student conduct or expulsion, the university is prioritizing communication and education.

This goes farther than keeping the student body updated. From the beginning of the pandemic, the university has worked to keep the entire Coug community updated through live-streamed town halls.

These created a forum for students and parents to pose questions and hear about the administration’s plans for the semester. They made a goal of prioritizing communication, and in one of the most unexpectedly-evolving situations, they continue to do so.

“Our university’s goal is to ensure that we’re sharing the right information with our community, and the only way we can do that is by showing up and communicating,” Creighton said.

All we can ask of both our students and our administration is to continue to communicate, remain flexible to change and respect the rules. We have to give up the wasted effort put into blaming each other, and focus on the health of our community. Each of us has a role to play.