University of Washington: UW campus prepares for return to in-person classes, activities

It’s been about 18 months since the University of Washington led the nation in pivoting to largely online learning and working as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

While campus operations never halted completely, many students and UW staff have been based elsewhere, studying and working remotely.

Now, with autumn quarter set to begin at the end of this month and many UW staff beginning their return to on-campus work on Sept. 13, officials are making final preparations.

“We can’t wait for everybody to come back,” said Lou Cariello, UW’s vice president of facilities. “People are going to come back to a campus, and buildings on this campus, that have never been more clean, never been more beautiful and shiny.”

Throughout the pandemic, heating, ventilation and cooling engineers have worked to ensure that air is properly flowing through buildings and classrooms. Filters are being changed more frequently, airflow machines are running longer and air purifiers have been added to many locations.

“Our facilities team has been on campus every day, through the entire pandemic,” Cariello said. “We really haven’t skipped a beat.”

Window washers, plumbers, electricians, custodians, power plant operators, gardeners and more have been working to maintain the buildings and the 634-acre grounds. Facilities teams worked with experts across the university to determine the best way to adapt and keep campus safe. They deep-cleaned floors and carpets, dusted even in hard-to-reach places, power-washed, and scoured restrooms.

“We’re making sure that the systems are working effectively,” Cariello said. “We listen to what the guidance is on what will keep people safe. And we do the cleaning and disinfecting. We make sure that our ventilation systems are operating as best as they possibly can be.”

Also receiving a lot of attention: doorknobs, railings, elevator push buttons – places that people come into contact with the most.

“Those high-touch-point surfaces get cleaned on a more frequent basis than they did pre-pandemic,” he said. “That’s as a result of mitigating our safety and health risks for the people on campus.”

Campus housing is expected to return to full capacity this year, said Pam Schreiber, assistant vice president for Student Life and the executive director of Housing & Food Services.

“For many of our students it’s going to feel like a brand-new experience,” she said. “We cannot wait for our students to return. We are looking forward to it. We know the power of the residential experience and how much it adds to the student’s time at the UW.”

About 10,000 students are expected to move into the residence halls this year. This includes first-year students and returning second- and even third-year students whose on-campus living experience was interrupted by the pandemic. Demand for on-campus housing was so great that Haggett Hall, which closed in 2019, has been reopened. And isolation rooms are reserved throughout the residence halls to provide a safe space, should a student need to quarantine.

Teams are planning to make life safe and simple for students elsewhere on campus. Many dining halls will have grab-and-go prepared meals, and officials are expanding the use of Dub Grub, an online, mobile food-ordering system.

Most important, housing and food service crews recognize that they’re providing much more than a service, Schreiber said; they’re creating a welcoming space where students can feel at home.

“We recognize that they’ll need a lot of support, need a lot of help, directions, they’ll have a lot of questions. We need to have a lot of patience to support them and make sure they really get everything out of the experience of being on campus that they can,” she said. “We’re way more than just buildings and serving food, we’re really here to create this community for students and to help them connect with the UW, and have this really tremendous collegiate experience.”

Cariello said he’s eager to see the campus bustling once again.

“We’re going to get back to it, and it’s going to be terrific,” he said.

Still, he points out that everyone has a role to play in keeping the UW safe by heeding the calls of public health officials, and following vaccination and masking requirements.

“The most important thing we can do to mitigate risks of the virus spreading is to get vaccinated, to mask up indoors and to always practice good hygiene,” Cariello said. “Just wash your hands a lot.”

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