Commuter campuses like ours may face unique COVID-19 risk

Purdue West Lafayette cancels in-person classes effective March 23; no decision yet about PNW

As administrators announce efforts to protect students from the COVID-19 virus, at least one nursing faculty member says the fact that PNW is a commuter school may heighten the risk of infection.

“It is a serious situation we’re in,” said Taryn Eastland, College of Nursing associate professor. Her teaching and research focuses on health promotion, health disparities and evidence-based nursing practices. “This is a commuter university and most of our students work. They are exposed to a lot and bring whatever they get back here.”

That means students here are continually exposed not only to local bugs, but to infections affecting communities more than an hour away.

Unlike colleges whose student population lives mainly on campus, PNW students who develop flu symptoms may end up seeing physicians as far away as Chicago or distant suburbs. That means the university may not be able to spot infection trends.

On Tuesday, Indiana University Northwest announced in-person class cancellations following its spring break. They will not resume until April 6. The decision affects all IU campuses, including the main campus at Bloomington. Purdue in West Lafayette also announced that, effective March 23, in-person classes will be suspended and instruction will be conducted online.

As of last night, PNW administrators had not decided whether to cancel in-person classes in Hammond and Westville. 

“Purdue Northwest continues to monitor the situation,” said university spokesperson Kris Falzone. “Our expectation right now is that the chancellor and senior leaders will meet [Wednesday] morning.”

She said any decision about classes will be announced by emails sent to PNW student accounts, on the university website and through the school’s social media accounts.

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Northwest Indiana, but with spring break one week away, concerns about the spread of infection have grown as health authorities in 115 countries around the world have reported the infection and more than 640 cases have been confirmed in the United States. Of those, 19 have been reported in Illinois, most in the Chicago area, and at least six have occurred in Indiana.

“I think that the coronavirus is a serious concern for students traveling for spring break,” said Eastland. “However, I don’t think that there is a need for panic. I would not suggest international travel at this time. Students should exercise caution when traveling within the U.S. If a student should feel ill or develop fever while on vacation or returning, they should contact their doctor and take additional precautions to prevent the potential spread of illness.”

In response, PNW is suspending its international study programs to countries with high CDC travel advisories.

“The health and safety of our students and the entire campus community is the highest priority to PNW,” said Kyle Rausch, director of Education Abroad. “The university is closely monitoring the situation and is communicating with students who are scheduled to participate in education abroad programs between May and August 2020.”

PNW plans to follow the CDC and State Department travel advisories. The university’s International Travel Advisory Committee will decide whether to continue with programs in countries with level three advisories – so far only China, Italy, Iran and South Korea. PNW has followed West Lafayette’s decision in cancelling programs in Japan, which has received a CDC level two alert that recommends enhanced precautions, and reconsideration about whether the trip should be postponed.

The number of COVID-19 cases is expected to increase as health officials nationwide begin testing patients. Illinois health officials have confirmed they have 326 persons under investigation. There is no public information about the number under investigation in Indiana.

PNW has identified steps for assessment and containment should the virus appear on or near campus. Spaces for quarantine and best practices for handling those in containment have been identified.

The University of Washington, located in a state hard-hit by the infection, was the first major university to announce that it will temporarily cancel in-person classes and require its student body to take courses and finals remotely.

Since then, dozens of other universities — most on the East and West coasts — have suspended classes temporarily or moved them online and out of classrooms. On Monday, Ohio State announced that it would suspend in-person classes through the end of March.

In the event of class cancellation, PNW faculty has been advised to continue communicating with students using Blackboard and Brightspace to keep education on track.