With rising coronavirus case numbers, Oregon's largest universities face a host of difficult questions in planning for how to teach and house thousands of young men and women this fall.
For Oregon State University students, Vice President of University Relations Steve Clark said students are starting to receive emails about which of their classes might be online and which classes will be in person.
“It will indicate to them what courses are scheduled at this time for onsite instruction, versus those that are scheduled for remote instruction,” Clark said.
The university is in “restricted return” mode at the moment: Some staff members are returning to work while some students remain in residence halls. For students taking summer courses, Clark said the university would like to transition from remote instruction to in-person instruction later this summer. But an increasing number of cases across the state might put that in jeopardy.
“The recent surge of cases is giving us all pause,” Clark said.
OSU’s summer term could reflect how life might be on campuses across Oregon in the fall. As universities release plans for reopening, they may change from one day to the next, depending on COVID-19.
For OSU, a university with campuses around the state, running a college in the middle of a pandemic is not an easy task. Their policies have to take into account not just the main campus in Corvallis but all of their satellite campuses and field offices.
“We have to recognize that Oregon is a diverse state, and there are parts of our state where face coverings are not supported as a public health measure,” Clark said. “We understand those points of view, but we have a standard of public health…and we ask everyone to join us in that.”
But come fall, OSU and other colleges around the state will be back in session with fewer folks on campus. Oregon’s colleges continue to release and amend plans for the fall. And while there may be some uniformity in the decisions, each university is taking its own approach to the fall term.
Similar to the Oregon Department of Education and K-12, Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission released state guidelines for the state's colleges and universities last month.
They include things like requiring face coverings where the minimum six feet social distance cannot be followed, extensive cleaning of surfaces and classrooms, and creating a designated isolation area in case students, staff, or faculty members develop COVID-19 symptoms.
The HECC requires each of Oregon’s public colleges and universities to develop and submit an operational plan to the school’s board by September 1. From there, it will be submitted to the HECC.
Several schools have already shared draft plans or outlines with their campus community.
At Oregon Tech, the year will start nine days earlier than planned, on September 21. Officials there say it’s a public health decision, starting early so students can return home for Thanksgiving break and stay there.
Face coverings will be required in classes, labs, and common areas around campus.
"The health of our university community is a top priority and we are developing re-opening plans guided by safe delivery of classes and labs," said Oregon Tech Provost Joanna Mott in a release announcing the plan. "This includes several scenarios based on the status of virus infection rates, and our ability to access COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff."
For several of Oregon’s other college students, in-person classes will end before Thanksgiving too.
At OSU that choice will be optional for students on the Corvallis campus, giving students without a permanent home a place to stay. But allowing students to go home before Thanksgiving limits the amount of travel from a student’s home to their campus, Clark said.
“We recognize that some of our Corvallis students will remain on campus,” Clark said. “But we believe it’s important to not have the virus traveling back and forth, and we want students and we want communities that they live in…to remain safe too.”
Across the state, in-person classes will be limited to 50 or fewer people. At private Linfield University, classes will be limited to 25.
For students concerned about the safety of an in-person course, online classes or a hybrid will be an option.
Although the University of Oregon estimates more than 70% of classes will be "entirely in person or have significant in-person components," President Michael Schill said in a letter to students that there will be at least 150 new "well-prepared online classes" for students.
Colleges also continue to promote their fully online courses for students.
PSU is offering several different course options for the start of the fall term September 28. They include remote courses, in-person courses, online courses, and “flex courses.”
In announcing the plan, PSU said the flexibility "allows us to continue to protect at-risk community members and preserve the opportunity for face-to-face instruction when it can be conducted safely and in accordance with public health best practices."
For campuses with residence halls including UO and OSU, there will be only single or double rooms — no triples.
Other strategies include making sure common spaces can support physical distancing.
But then there are some things colleges won't be able to control, like student behavior. At OSU, the campus is hoping more education will help. The university is communicating with student and community leaders about how to promote public health and safety, like wearing face coverings.
And prioritizing health and safety isn’t limited to students or younger people.
“We do know that there are behaviors…we want to socialize with our family, we want to socialize with our friends, and we now need to continue to be public health-minded in those cases,” Clark said. “It’s up to all of us.”
And when it comes to preparing for COVID-19, universities are planning for extensive contact tracing and testing.
OSU will have weekly “trace testing” on several campuses this fall for up to 4000 people for 10 weeks.
“That weekly testing will give us an indication within the university communities, separate – Corvallis, separate – Bend, separate – Newport, whether or not the virus that causes COVID-19 is remaining the same, spiking, or decreasing,” Clark said.