University embarks on a fall term that has few parallels

Social distancing in a residence hall

A fall term like no other is now underway at the University of Oregon.

After months of planning and preparation for a return to in-person instruction, university leaders decided to shift to mostly remote classes in late August due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19 across the country. But the university has welcomed back first-year students and others who have chosen to live on campus, thanks to a robust university COVID-19 testing program, reduced capacity, enhanced cleaning and other safety measures.

“We have prepared a long time to create a safe, enriching experience for students this fall,” President Michael H. Schill said. “We know there will be bumps along the way and we will have to be extremely vigilant. I am hopeful that if the entire community works together, we will make this term a success.”

All students in residence halls were required to be tested before move-in. Each will be tested a second time three to seven days after that initial test, then at least one additional time during the term.

Fall term arrives as COVID-19 cases are already ticking upwards both across Oregon and Lane County. The return of students to Eugene and more testing of the UO student population will contribute to the further increase in local case numbers.

Residence hall testing began with the first students’ move-in in mid-September. So far, those tests have yielded a positivity rate of around 0.15 percent in just under 3,400 tests.

“We fully expect the positive case numbers for the UO community to go up as fall begins, as a result of increased screening and surveillance tests,” said UO Chief Resiliency Officer André Le Duc. “Cases identified through screening and surveillance tests are often asymptomatic cases. So, identifying those cases and isolating asymptomatic individuals is actually a benefit because it helps control the spread of COVID.”

Successfully managing positive cases in the university community will be critical, Le Duc said, as will smart behavior choices from students who are exposed to the virus. Lane County Public Health is leading all contact tracing in Eugene, with the assistance of UO students participating in the Corona Corps monitoring team.

The university has also set aside a full residence hall for on-campus residents who may need to isolate or quarantine. And the UO’s Corona Corps Care Team can assist in getting negotiated-rate hotel rooms, food delivery or financial support for students living off-campus in Eugene who need to isolate or quarantine.

University classes, meanwhile, will continue to be conducted mostly remotely. However, there will be more in-person offerings this term – around 15 to 20 percent of total classes – to allow some classes based in labs and music and dance studios, as well as research lectures and other small classes.

Online and remote classes will have enhanced curriculum and have been redesigned to improve interactivity, digital platforms, and overall student experience. Students will have access to significant resources to make their experience with remote learning and advising as seamless as possible.

“None of us at the UO thought that this is how we’d wind up teaching our students, but our faculty members have done their utmost to make this term a meaningful experience,” said Patrick Phillips, the UO’s provost and senior vice president. “The pandemic has created a dynamic and uncertain situation for all of us across the globe. But our faculty and staff are up for the challenge. I am proud of the work they have done since the pandemic struck last spring to make sure our students will be engaged in a way that will help them achieve their academic and career goals.”

Much of campus life at the UO will still feel familiar; many facilities, including UO Libraries, the Student Recreation Center and the Erb Memorial Union, will be open in some capacity with health and safety measures in place. Freshman Interest Groups and Academic Residential Communities, some club sports, identity-based organizations and spaces, and others will also meet and operate with modifications.

Members of the campus community should have their UO ID card and be prepared show it when visiting open facilities on campus. ID cards will also be required to gain entry to limited access and restricted buildings.

Face masks or face coverings will be required indoors in UO buildings and also outside when physical distancing isn’t possible, with some limited exceptions. Campus community members have been asked to conduct a daily symptom self-check and stay home if they are experiencing any symptoms.

The university expects its students and employees to be diligent and respectful when it comes to following rules around face coverings, physical distancing and social gatherings, on and off campus. All members of the campus community will be asked to commit to a “Duck Pledge” to model behaviors that will help keep others safe both at the UO and in the wider Eugene community.

Kris Winter, associate vice president and dean of students, said the university has outlined clear expectations when it comes to student behavior, while providing support to students during what is “a challenging time to be young adult.”

“Our student conduct process is always educational first in nature,” she said. “Every individual incident will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We don’t want a situation where our students are too afraid of getting into trouble to reach out when they’re sick or need help.”

Like many campuses across the U.S., the university community has experienced a spike in off-campus COVID-19 cases during September, with 89 total off-campus cases. To prepare for this, the UO has taken a number of steps to address and manage those cases.

A moratorium will be imposed on all in-person social events at the university’s fraternities and sororities during fall, while recruitment will be all virtual.

The UO, in partnership with PeaceHealth, has offered guidance and expertise in reviewing the safety plans that the privately owned Greek chapter houses have developed. The university is similarly working with large student housing complexes to help identify isolation and quarantine spaces in their facilities or otherwise help residents.

Campus and community members will be able to share concerns about individuals not complying with university policies and expectations and local and state health orders by using an online form. The UO Police Department is also partnering with Eugene police for enhanced “party patrols” to monitor social gatherings in the neighborhoods near campus.

To keep the community informed, the UO provides tracking dashboards that are updated daily with information about positive and presumptive positive COVID-19 cases among students living on campus, students living off campus and employees. Another online dashboard provides daily information on residence hall move-in testing results.

Throughout the fall, the university will work to enhance its COVID-19 testing capacity with hopes of receiving U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for saliva-based testing later this year.

As it has since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the UO will work closely with state and county health authorities throughout the term to provide a full range of information to help students, families, employees and the community understand the steps being taken to safeguard campus and reduce the spread of COVID-19. That information is available on the university’s COVID 19 Resources website.

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications