A member of faculty, a public health official and students react to WVU’s decision to cancel in-person classes

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia University has decided to temporarily suspend all in-person classes after spring break, starting Monday, March 23-27 amid growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

This is according to WVU president Gordon Gee who sent a letter to the entire university stating that beginning March 30, in-person classes will be delivered remotely via online or other alternative learning options. Students are being instructed to not return to campus after spring break and to instead remain at home.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the vice president and executive dean of the WVU School of Health Sciences, said if the decision had been made a week or so ago he would’ve disagreed, but a lot had changed recently.

“I agree with the decision of the university a hundred percent because when we look at this particular virus, this novel coronavirus or COVID-19 this is an unusual virus because it came from bats to people and this virus we don’t have any natural immunity against,” Marsh said. “So we can’t really fight the virus off ourselves and even though most people that get the virus are going to be ok, they’re going to get a viral illness people that are older tend to do much worse with it.”

Marsh said the virus is also dangerous because of how easily it can spread, through saliva produced from coughing, sneezing or as a result of not washing your hands properly. Currently, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, Marsh said, so being careful is necessary.

Dr. Lee Smith, the executive director of the Monongalia County Health Department (MCHD), echoed Marsh’s sentiments. Smith said he thought the decision was well thought out and that he appreciated the fact that the university had kept MCHD and healthcare providers in the loop before making the decision.

“We know that spring break occurs every year and an institution that has close to 40,000 students go to a lot of different places and we see an increase in influenza and other illnesses that occur during people’s travels,” Smith said. ” And so it would be no difficult calculus to figure out that coronavirus could be returned to Morgantown or to any of the satellite institutes from these travels.”

Smith said he understands the pressure it puts on students, faculty, and staff but that this was the right course of action.

That academic pressure Smith talked about is something freshman Josh Milchman is concerned about. Milchman said he thinks the fears about COVID-19 were “overblown” and that he worried about the effects it will have on his grades.

“I’m a little concerned about it and I hope it doesn’t affect grades,” Milchman said. “I go to tutoring a lot on campus and I know that won’t be offered while classes are online but I think they’re going to do everything to help us and make sure everything stays the same.”

All in all, Milchman called the university’s decision a “smart” one.

Another WVU freshman, Payne Blankenship, said he thought the decision was an overreaction but that he also understood the university’s need to be precautious so that nobody is infected with the virus.

Blankenship too said he was concerned about the switch to online courses.

“I’m definitely concerned because if we take our online classes I’m not sure I’ll get the knowledge that we need to know to come back and take a final in person,” Blankenship said. “I’m not sure if I’ll have all the knowledge and stuff for that.”

Blankenship said he knows a lot of people who are face to face learners and/or struggle learning on their own so the shift out of the classroom will be a difficult one.

In president Gee’s letter, he said the School of Health Sciences would be making the specific decisions about how to move forward especially concerning students who are in clinical rotations. Marsh, the executive dean, said they are making a similar decision in health sciences as other schools in the state and nation who have had to reconfigure due to the spread of COVID-19.

“If students are participating in clinical rotations then we’ll continue to do those,” Marsh said. “We’ll make sure that it’s safe, we will not allow any student to interact with anyone under investigation for COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus or people that have been proven to have the novel coronavirus.”

Marsh continued.

“Otherwise, we will have them safely use the protective equipment that we all use and we will continue to let them do their clinical rotations because eventually, they’re going to become these healthcare workers that they’re training to be and that’s part of our job, part of our responsibility, part of our commitment to serve our communities is to help people when they most need our help.”

In continuing explaining why the decision is the right one, Marsh said if we look at experiences in other countries, namely Italy, where preventative measures were not taken until it was too late, resulting in a nationwide shutdown and the border being closed, we can reason that decisions like WVU’s are the right course of action.

The death rate in Italy is currently 6 percent becasue the situation got out of hand. If you compare that to the 0.05 percent of people who die in the US from influenza, commonly known as the flu, you would see that the risk posed to the public is great Marsh said. Influenza kills tens of thousands of people annually with such a low fatality rate, COVID-19 would be devastating if allowed to spread.

Marsh explained that if the virus did spread, we would not have the healthcare infrastructure in place to treat so many patients, resulting in them being left in the hallways of hospitals like has happened in Italy.

“We can look at this as a potential state for us in West Virginia or the US and so it’s made me understand that an ounce of prevention is worth maybe a thousand pounds of cure,” Marsh said.

Marsh encourages people to learn more and stay by visiting the University’s Coronavirus website.

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