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Mills College moves all courses online in response to the threat of COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared the recent coronavirus a pandemic. A pandemic differs from an epidemic and outbreak in that it refers to an illness that has affected a large population within many countries and/or continents. According to WHO, coronaviruses are part of a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory infections in humans. The recent strain of the virus has been commonly referred to as “coronavirus disease 2019” or “COVID-19.”

Several college campuses in the U.S. have begun to take action against the threat of the virus being spread amongst students. The University of Washington, with a student body of over 45,000 students, was one of the first colleges to make the decision to move courses online. However, the campus remains open for students to maintain access to needed resources, such as hospitals, clinics, housing and dining services.

Other institutions have followed these measures, such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Berkeley City College. Nationwide, campuses are making efforts to suspend in-class instruction for the remaining quarters/semesters and/or cancel all unnecessary gatherings of large groups of people.

On Mar. 10, students at Mills were informed that classes with an enrollment of 30 students or more would be moved online. This decision affected nine courses but left students concerned about other spaces where large groups gathered such as Adams Plaza, the Tea Shop, Founders Commons and the residence halls.

The Mills administration sent students several emails explaining the status of COVID-19 and what precautions were being done to reduce the risk of transmission on-campus. Several events were canceled or postponed, such as the annual Black and White Ball, and students were encouraged to wash their hands regularly and not attend classes if they were experiencing any symptoms of the virus. Study abroad students have been requested to return to the U.S. to conclude their studies for this academic semester if safely possible.

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus on-campus, but there was a concern for how students would be able to maintain their learning experiences if all course materials were not readily available online and they needed to remain home.

Mackenzie Robertson, a sophomore transfer student at Mills, created a petition requesting Mills to consider moving courses online temporarily or for the rest of the semester. The petition called for support for students who needed to miss in-person instruction and would need access to course materials online.

“Mills is an open campus. We have a high traffic flow of families and other organizations on campus daily. We have multiple schools in session on this campus. We have at-risk communities on campus,” Robertson’s petition reads. “There will always be large groups of thirty or more people in the residence halls, the Tea Shop, Adams Plaza, and Founders.

The petition reached over 200 signatures and was sent to the provost, the dean of students, and others in the administration on Mar. 11. Later that afternoon, President Hillman sent a video to students addressing the decisions being made in regard to COVID-19 and discussions around severity to the campus.

“First, I want to acknowledge this has been a difficult time, trying for me and for many others so thank you for your perseverance and your commitment to helping others get through this together,” Hillman said in the video. “Second, I want to assure you that Mills is making the best decisions it can based on our size, relative risk, student demographics and location. We are small. We have fewer students enrolled than in a single big class at many large universities.”

Mills has a student body of just over 1,000 students, including undergraduate and graduate students. With an average class size of 12 students, the campus does have a lower rate of traffic than larger campuses. Yet, students who are immunocompromised could still be at risk.

According to Harvard Medical School, those who are at risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19 are elderly people and people who have “underlying medical conditions like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart failure, or diabetes.”

Hillman assured that changes to policies would be issued when conditions concerning the virus made them necessary.

On Mar. 12, the director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, gave opening remarks at the mission briefing for COVID-19. Adhanom addressed that the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic is not the end or a means for people to give up hope. While there has been a large number of cases reported, the virus can be controlled. The difficult decision to declare the virus as a pandemic came from the rapid scale of infection within individuals in different locations and the concern for several countries that WHO feels are not approaching this issue with urgency.

“Almost 125,000 cases have now been reported to WHO, from 118 countries and territories. In the past two weeks, the number of cases reported outside China has increased almost 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has almost tripled,” Adhanom said. “This is a controllable pandemic. Countries that decide to give up on fundamental public health measures may end up with a larger problem, and a heavier burden on the health system that requires more severe measures to control. All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.”

WHO has taken several actions to aid countries who need assistance controlling populations who have been affected by the virus such as shipping supplies of “personal protective equipment” to certain countries, creating a COVID training course on OpenWho, and working with countries to develop “preparedness and response” plans.

California is actively testing people for COVID-19. There have been a total of 198 confirmed cases in the state and four deaths, reported by the California Department of Public Health. 113 cases affected people within the age group of 18 to 64, while 79 cases affected people over the age of 65.

There is currently no confirmed vaccine for COVID-19 and people are encouraged to protect themselves and their families by avoiding exposure to the virus. Social distancing is being practiced by many institutions in the form of canceling events and moving courses online.

On Mar. 12, steps to move all courses at Mills online were established to students. Classes were canceled on Friday, Mar. 13 and Monday, Mar. 16 to train professors in online course materials as classes are scheduled to resume Tuesday, Mar. 17. They will remain online for the rest of the semester, minimizing traffic on campus and reducing the risk of transmission.

Hillman met with Robertson and other contributors to the petition to discuss student concerns after the news of courses moving online.

“For this meeting, we wrote out a list of student concerns we wanted her and the rest of the administration to address. Between sending the letter and meeting with the president, Mills sent out the email notifying us all that classes would be moved online, so we adapted our letter to the concerns that their decision brought forward,” Robertson said. “Our main concerns now include how Mills is supporting staff/faculty? … [Learning the] protocol for handling a [coronavirus] case on-campus, resources for students who need access to technology and the internet, and security for students who remain on campus. We met with the president to discuss these issues, to which we believe she was very receptive.”

As of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Mar. 17, a “shelter-in-place” order was set to take effect in six Bay Area counties, including San Francisco, Alameda County, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin and Contra Costa. The order requires everyone to remain in their homes and avoid contact with others for the next three weeks in an attempt to stop the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Mills College is establishing this order by closing the campus and continuing access for “residents, their essential guests, and campus-essential personnel”.

Housing and dining services will remain open for students, including the food pantry.