Univ. of Washington will move 80% of classes online this fall amid looming threats from COVID and ICE

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The University of Washington’s The Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering. (GeekWire Photo)

The University of Washington’s leaders — and their colleagues across the country — are walking a tightrope as they plan for the fall term amid rising coronavirus cases and controversial new rules for international students introduced by the federal government this week.

The UW is located in the first known coronavirus hotspot in the U.S. and was the nation’s first major university to shut down in response to the pandemic.

In the months that followed, UW President Ana Mari Cauce has repeatedly said the university plans to welcome students back to campus in the fall. But now, as coronavirus cases spread through UW fraternity houses, other large schools shift to online-only learning, and the federal government threatens to kick international students out if they don’t have in-person classes, the university faces tough choices.

The UW’s current plan is to adopt a hybrid learning approach this fall, in which about 80% of classes will be online and 20% will be in person, according to Victor Balta, director of media relations for the university.

All classes that are larger than 50 students will be shifted online, said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. That includes most classes in the computer science school, he said.

The approach could shield international students from new regulations introduced by the federal government Monday that have many universities up in arms. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it will bar international students from the country if they plan to take an exclusively online course load this fall.

DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told CNN that the regulations were designed, in part, to “encourage schools to reopen.”

“If a school isn’t going to open or if they’re going to be 100% online then we wouldn’t expect people to be here for that,” he said.

Harvard and MIT sued the federal government on Tuesday, seeking a temporary restraining order on ICE’s proposed regulations. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee accused President Donald Trump of “trying to use young students as pawns” in a press conference Tuesday.

“This is a typically xenophobic and reckless act by the administration,” Inslee said. “It creates perverse incentives to force universities to do in-person classes even if they consider that to be unwise and unhealthy.”

Cauce said Tuesday that the UW will work with government officials to change the proposal. If it stands, the university will explore “options the UW can provide to help international students continue their education uninterrupted.”

“What we have done is to tell our international students that things are in flux, we and everyone else [are] pushing back, we and everyone else [are] planning workarounds,” Lazowska told GeekWire.

Harvard and other universities announced that all of their courses will be offered online before ICE introduced the new rules. The proposed regulations complicate the choices universities are making as the coronavirus crisis evolves in real-time.

The situation at the UW is changing rapidly. More than 150 students have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks due to an outbreak at the UW’s Greek Row, raising concerns about transmission during the upcoming quarter.

UW classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 30. Small in-person classes will be held in large lecture rooms to allow for physical distancing.

“First, it is clear that protecting the health of our community is a responsibility we all share,” Cauce said in a June 29 update. “It’s also clear that we will all need to be flexible. No one can predict with absolute certainty the course the pandemic will take, and it is possible that we may have to again pivot to all-remote learning, as we did in spring quarter, if the virus is spreading too quickly in our state.”

Cauce has said previously that she expects students who face higher risks of complications from COVID-19 will take all of their classes online. That shift could be a financial hit for the university.

It costs money to transition classes online, as the UW did for 98% of its courses last term. And colleges lose money when students aren’t paying for room and board. The University of Michigan estimates it could lose up to $1 billion by the end of the year and for the University of Kentucky, that figure is $70 million, NPR reports. Financial duress led Stanford to cancel 11 varsity sports programs after this year.

Last month, Washington state issued new safety guidelines for institutions of higher education as they prepare to re-open for the fall term. Schools will be required to provide and mandate personal protective equipment, limit class sizes, reduce shared supplies, and comply with requirements from local health officials. Colleges are advised to conduct routine temperature checks of students and staff and use contact tracing to notify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus.

COVID-19 cases are rising in Washington state and King County, where UW is located. More than 37,000 people across the state have tested positive for the virus, including more than 11,000 in King County.

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