The dropping of the majority of Oregon’s COVID-19 mandates last Wednesday, following a declaration by Gov. Kate Brown, has caused many businesses and organizations to loosen their guidelines on physical distancing and mask wearing. But, that’s not necessarily the case everywhere — namely some of the state’s public colleges and universities.

The loosening of restrictions has led to changes at some institutions, though others are sticking with what they were already planning for the summer and upcoming fall.

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For the state’s largest universities — which are planning for a return to more in-person instruction in the fall — the lifting of statewide restrictions has brought some key changes.

Oregon State University spokesperson Steve Clark said the university anticipates it will not require face coverings on campus this fall.

“We will follow CDC recommendations for unvaccinated individuals,” Clark said. “We do plan to ask all university employees, students and members of the public to respect individuals’ choice as it regards wearing face coverings within university locations and activities.”

Clark said OSU replaced its face covering and physical distancing policies with a general policy with guidance on “risk reduction requirements and recommendations.”

Clark noted that things could change, especially with risks posed by the Delta variant. He said the university will remain flexible and follow local, state and federal health guidelines.

Like all of Oregon’s public universities, OSU is requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or valid exemption for students, staff and faculty who are working or learning on campus this fall.

Neither University of Oregon nor Portland State University plan to continue physical distancing measures inside of campus buildings. But, both schools are still requiring people to wear face coverings indoors.

Alex Engelhardt, a sophomore at PSU, said she would personally be ok with an optional face mask policy at the campus in downtown Portland.

“I’d feel pretty good about that at PSU, mostly because they’re requiring vaccinations in the fall,” she said. “So as long as everyone around me is vaccinated, definitely, I would love to see people’s faces again.”

A sign reads "Portland Community College."

Portland Community College

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

PCC staying the course

In late May, Portland Community College was assuming its fall term would look similar in many ways to how the campus had been operating in the spring — with a bulk of courses remaining online. Even with loosened state restrictions, not much has changed.

“As of [the governor’s announcement] we’re likely sticking with a sustained reopening,” PCC’s Director of Public Relations and Community Engagement Kate Chester told OPB in an email.

PCC is in a “modified reopening” for summer term — only offering in-person courses that are necessary for students to complete degrees or certifications in fields that are “deemed essential to maintaining the health and safety of Oregonians.” Those are programs in the medical and dental fields, mostly.

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“Sustained reopening” includes an expanded list of in-person courses — including some art and design classes, culinary assistant training courses and outdoor physical education. Sustained reopening will also bring back athletics, childcare, food pantry, computer labs and other services with some restrictions and limited schedules.

Chester said the community college might consider a “sustained+” model of reopening — a more relaxed version of sustained reopening, though there are not yet details on what that might look like. She said PCC would make its fall term resumption phase decision by this Wednesday.

Chester noted that with the dropping of many of the state’s coronavirus-related mandates, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) is no longer enforcing face coverings and physical distancing. But, PCC will still require face coverings, at least for the time being.

“Given that this all just happened [last Wednesday], we’re maintaining our same health and safety protocols for the summer term as rolled out,” Chester said.

She said the college may modify its protocols “if we see benefit in doing so and the move is congruent with CDC, local county health and OSHA guidelines.”

PCC faculty worry ongoing rules set ‘students up to fail’

PCC is Oregon’s largest institution of higher education, with about 60,000 students enrolled every year.

“We are more cautious and careful in our reopening, and part of that has to do with our open-access mission,” Kurt Simonds, dean of academic and student affairs operations at PCC, told OPB in late May. “We take everyone who comes, and we want to remove as many barriers as we can from students attending our classes.”

Matthew Stockton is the chair of PCC’s philosophy and psychology departments at the Sylvania campus, as well as the faculty union’s executive vice president. He said the expectation that PCC will stick to the sustained reopening plan “isn’t unexpected, but it remains a disappointing outcome for students and faculty.”

“Fall term is usually the most exciting and energetic for us as there’s a real bonding that occurs between students and faculty as we embark on the academic year,” Stockton said. “To not have those full resources at our disposal undermines our ability to best serve the unique needs of our students.”

Stockton acknowledged that many PCC students appreciate online learning and excelled with it over the last year, but that’s not the case for everyone.

“To not offer our full offerings of campus based learning effectively sets some students up to fail by forcing them into learning modalities that don’t play to their strengths,” he said.

PCC political science professor Doug Byrd echoed Stockton’s thoughts.

“I have students who are happy to be online for the rest of their college career, but then you have students who are gone – they’ve dropped out of PCC for many different reasons,” Byrd said.

Byrd said it’s unclear what would need to change in order for PCC to agree to fully reopen campus for in-person classes.

“We’re way past the time to start moving forward just like everyone else is,” Byrd said.

Regardless, Stockton and Byrd said that instructors remain dedicated to doing everything they can to help students succeed.

Unlike the state’s public universities, PCC made the decision recently not to require COVID-19 vaccines for the fall.

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