Is Western ready to reopen come fall — or is the university just trying to boost enrollment?
The challenges of online learning have students longing for a return to in-person classes — but with COVID-19 actively circulating and uncertainty about when more people will get vaccinated, is Western Washington University’s announcement to reopen in fall too soon?
An email from Western President Sabah Randhawa on Feb. 4 expressed Western’s projection of in-person classes in the fall.
But why is Western ready to go back?
It’s hard to say. As Whatcom County Health Department public information officer Melissa Morin said via email, it’s too early to make projections on case numbers for September.
Without knowing what the virus will look like in fall, the university is making a promise it may not be able to keep. The reopening announcement coincides with university admission decisions, making it appear as if Western hopes to increase enrollment.
Paul Cocke, Western’s university communications director, said via email he expects in-person classes to increase fall 2021 enrollment, and he listed in-person classes as a factor for Western to return to normal enrollment levels.
In Randhawa’s email, he said, “Based on current projections from health experts we are again looking forward to welcoming students back to campus for a fall quarter with in-person classes, the return of many more students to our university residences, and the resumption of more normal in-person services and activities.”
As of Friday, Feb. 19, The Western Front had not heard back from Cocke on what went into the decision to announce reopening plans.
One thing is certain: Remote learning has meant a drop in enrollment and revenue at Western.
Total fall 2020 enrollment was down 5.9% from 2019, which was less than university officials feared, according to Western Today. Lower enrollment of first-year, transfer and out-of-state students all contributed to the decline.
Net tuition revenue for fiscal year 2020 decreased by $837,000, in comparison to an increase of $5.2 million from 2019, according to the financial report for the 2020 fiscal year.
Western relies heavily on student tuition and fees to support operations, according to the report. The university financial position went down $13.8 million, primarily due to reduced revenue because of COVID-19.
Many factors are at play in terms of a university’s funding like enrollment, legislative and the economic impacts on the state budget according to the report.
Eagerness to return to a sense of normal is a communal feeling.
Megan Bullard, a third-year public health major, said she has struggled with online learning during the pandemic.
“I really wanted to take winter quarter off,” Bullard said.
Bullard isn’t the only student who considered taking time off because of remote learning. She pays in-state tuition at Western but spoke about some of her friends who pay out-of-state and have taken quarters off because of the expense.
“You’re not getting the same amount and we’re paying for all these facilities we don’t have access to,” Bullard said.
As a public health major at Western, Bullard decided not to take winter quarter off as it would put her a year behind in her degree. Graduation requirements and finances are some of the many factors students have had to consider in how to continue their education during the pandemic.
These hard decisions might not be going away anytime soon. As Morin said, it’s too early for the Whatcom County Health Department to project case numbers for September.
Vaccinations may be one way students, staff and faculty can feel safe returning if Western does reopen in the fall. But the health department is not yet projecting vaccination numbers for the county, Morin said.
This graphic from the Washington State Department of Health shows Washington’s plan for who will be vaccinated and when. Western students’ demographics vary, Morin said, meaning students will get vaccinated depending on what tier they fit into. Morin said those who are not part of Phase 1A or 1B will likely not be eligible for vaccination until this summer or fall.
In response to what would make it safer for people to return to campus, Morin said generally, low transmission rates within the community improve safety which can be achieved through mask use, social distancing and proper ventilation in indoor spaces.
In the next few months, new students are going through the confusing and exciting process of deciding where to enroll. At Western, students will need to decide to enroll by May 1.
Perhaps the prospect of in-person will excite them to commit, but Western’s plan to reopen in the fall feels like an empty promise when no county metrics can point to this possibility. The only statistics that point favorably in reopening are the increase it would bring to university revenue.
Cocke said it’s too early to predict how many new students will enroll in the fall, but said the “applicant pool is of similar size to the applicant pool of recent years, and there is some enthusiasm in the marketplace for study at Western. We are optimistic for what fall 2021 will bring.”
Sharing the same sentiment as many, Bullard said, “Obviously I want [reopening campus] to happen. I want to make sure it’s the safest thing to happen.”