Portland’s Reed College has reported only four positive COVID-19 cases since its fall semester began in late August.
Low case numbers seem to be a trend at many of Oregon’s private colleges and universities, even as thousands of students have returned to campuses in person.
Some of the state’s private institutions link those low COVID-19 cases to high vaccination rates and close adherence to public health guidance. In addition, college administrators say they were able to learn what works from having at least some in-person learning throughout the course of the pandemic.
“People, we found, are very engaged with our COVID prevention measures, and they take it seriously,” said Madison Riethman, Reed College’s COVID-19 response coordinator. “I think that is number one, the biggest reason that we’ve had such low case rates.”
Reed’s four positive COVID-19 cases make up less than 0.2% of its population of students and employees who study or work on-campus. Reed also has no students or employees in quarantine as of Wednesday.
Last year, Reed had one of the most intensive testing procedures of any Oregon higher education institution, conducting close to 2,000 tests a week, according to Riethman.
Riethman said the school isn’t doing that level of testing this semester but it’s still testing a few hundred people per week, through weekly tests of unvaccinated students and employees, as well as random “surveillance” testing for people who are fully vaccinated.
“And any community member can show up to testing anytime during the week if they’d like to as well,” Riethman said. “So, I think we’ve really empowered people to kind of make smart decisions.”
Riethman said the testing in conjunction with the school’s vaccination rates — 99% for students and 97% for faculty and staff — have made campus feel like a safe place.
Reed requires COVID-19 vaccinations, or valid exemptions, for students, but not for employees. Other private colleges, such as University of Portland, mandate vaccines or approved exemptions for everyone on campus.
“I think that our success goes back to our vaccination policy,” said Herbert Medina, acting president and provost at University of Portland.
According to UP’s COVID-19 data, 96.1% of students and employees are fully vaccinated. Medina said about 2% of UP’s campus community applied for a vaccine exemption, and a small number — including some new hires — are yet to comply with the vaccination policy.
UP this fall is not doing the kind of random “surveillance testing” that Reed is doing. Instead it’s among many other colleges and universities in the state asking symptomatic students and employees to get tested.
UP has also seen a low case count relative to its size: 33 positive cases since the fall term began in August, or about 0.7% of the 4,300 students and staff spending time on campus.
Medina noted the spike in Oregon COVID-19 cases in the late summer, before the start of the semester, “but, with our high vaccination rate and our safety measures, we’ve been able to navigate those waters relatively well.”
Medina said that most of UP’s positive student cases have been those living off-campus, and Medina said “that’s consistent with what’s being seen throughout higher ed.”
“We’ve had a few, very few, students who live in our residence halls [test positive], and we’ve been able to work with them, to care for them, to isolate them in a way that keeps the community safe,” Medina said, “bringing them food, making sure that they’re still able to continue with their classes.”
Like many of Oregon’s other private institutions, UP and Reed had some on-campus classes in the spring semester, which officials said helped get the schools used to navigating in-person interaction during the pandemic.
“[Faculty] got used to being able to teach with masks on. Our students who were here in the spring also had to wear masks indoors the entire time,” Medina with UP said. “And, of course, it was a very different environment in the spring. There were no vaccines, basically, hardly anybody was vaccinated. So, we feel a lot safer this fall semester.”
Medina said UP has found no COVID-19 transmission within its classrooms this semester, and almost no transmission within the campus itself.
For many Oregon private colleges and universities also requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, there are similarly low numbers of positive COVID-19 cases: 43 at Linfield University, 36 at Willamette University and 32 for Lewis & Clark College since the beginning of August, and 15 for Pacific University since Aug. 30.
All of those schools have vaccination rates from around 93% to 99%.
Unvaccinated people on campus
Linfield saw an uptick of COVID-19 cases on its McMinnville campus last week — 21 reported cases, compared to five or fewer cases every week before.
Through contact tracing, Linfield found “it’s clear that it is related to a small number of unvaccinated students and their roommates or other household contracts,” said Kathy Foss, Linfield’s Assistant Director of Strategic Communications.
Foss said this week’s positive case numbers are declining and the students involved have been tested or are testing according to Yamhill County Public Health recommendations.
Linfield is among the Oregon private universities with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement in place for students and employees, with allowances for medical or nonmedical exemptions. Linfield has a vaccination rate of about 93% for students and employees.
Although all of Oregon’s public universities have enacted vaccine requirements, that’s not the case for all of the state’s private institutions.
Some schools, including Corban University, George Fox University and Bushnell University, are not requiring COVID-19 vaccination, only strongly encouraging it.
Those schools all still have a relatively low number of positive cases — 41 at Corban, 24 at George Fox since the beginning of the term, and 31 at Bushnell since Aug. 1.
“Despite Oregon’s COVID-19 cases still being above last winter’s peak, we have had very few cases on campus,” said Brad Lau, George Fox Vice President of Student Life, in a message to the campus community last week. “However, as we begin to spend more time indoors, the risk of disease transmission increases, especially to those who are not vaccinated.”
Though George Fox, Corban and Bushnell aren’t requiring vaccinations, they are still located in counties that have moderately high vaccination rates.
The return to in-person
With high vaccination rates and low case numbers, some college administrators are looking at what COVID-19 precautions they can start to peel back.
For example, last year and in the spring semester, students living on campus at Reed had to live in single occupancy rooms. Now, Reed’s COVID-19 response coordinator, Riethman, said students can have roommates again, and there are more on-campus events for students.
“By the end of the [spring] semester, we were doing great with COVID. We had very low case counts, but a lot of our students were just saying, ‘This doesn’t feel like the college experience,’” Riethman recalled.
“A lot of people were feeling isolated and somewhat lonely without a roommate, so this year, we were able to bring back a lot of those more core characteristics to give people that connection that I think the pandemic took from so many of us over the last year,” Riethman said. “We had that extra protection of vaccination which made us feel much more comfortable lifting some of those other measures.”
Although it wasn’t the typical college experience, Riethman said Reed’s somewhat in-person campus last semester was key to the college’s success this fall.
“I think we were really fortunate to have had an in-person experience last year, even if it was very toned down and modified, because that really gave us a trial period,” she said. “We eased back into it rather than just going from no students to all students back.”
Oregon’s public universities shut campuses down last academic year more strictly than many of the private universities — mostly resorting to remote learning with only a fraction of students living on campus.
The University of Oregon returned to full in-person learning late last month. It has reported 131 COVID-19 cases in its campus community since the week of Sept. 20, when it began its on-campus move-in. Most of its positive cases have been in students living off campus.
Still, that’s a relatively small number of cases, for a large university like UO. Positive cases since the recent start of the term make up only about 0.7% of UO’s total on-campus population — similar to the ratio at the University of Portland.
Even though UP saw hundreds of students living on campus during the spring semester and had some amount of in-person and hybrid classes, Medina said many students and employees were still nervous about returning to campus fully in-person this fall.
There are about 1,800 students living on campus, in residence halls, this semester. That compares with about 800 last semester. Medina is focusing short-term, and what he calls a “successful” completion to an in-person fall term “if everyone does their part” to maintain health on campus.
Riethman with Reed noted that many private institutions that started school in August were at the forefront of figuring out how to manage safety with the delta variant, which she calls a “huge curveball” for colleges to deal with.
“I think that’s just been the nature of this pandemic,” Riethman said. “You think you have something figured out, and then something major changes and then you have to change with it.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story was incorrect about which private university has highest student enrollment numbers in Oregon. OPB regrets the error.