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WU administrator says individual actions by students will drive success of COVID-19 protections

Jake Procino

News editor

Many students came into this semester questioning why Willamette was opening at all, considering the disastrous reopenings of other colleges, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame. The questions have only increased after the Willamette University Reopening Committee informed the Willamette Community via mass email that an individual working on campus tested positive for the Coronavirus. President Steven Thorsett offered an explanation in his August 20 “Words from Waller” address: “So much of the magic that takes place at Willamette is through the connections made outside the classroom boundaries – whether with faculty, staff, or peers. There is lots of research that shows the importance of personal connection for retention and ultimate graduation.”

Willamette University’s reopening plan requires great responsibility from everybody involved in the on-campus experience, but this responsibility falls most heavily on the Reopening Operations Committee (ROC). According to Willamette’s COVID-19 response organization chart, the ROC is responsible for operational and budget decisions, and developing policies and procedures for managing the spread of COVID-19.

Director of Bishop Wellness Center and ROC member Don Thomson reiterated Thorsett’s remarks regarding the decision to reopen over email, saying: “There is a great deal of research that shows the importance of personal connection for achieving these outcomes, retention, and ultimately graduation. Secondly, we have to recognize the differential impact that COVID and remote learning has had for many of our community members. Those without adequate technology, or whose learning style is better suited for in-person instruction, those who did not come from schools that prepared them for seminar instruction are all often disadvantaged by remote learning. Thirdly, although not least important, are the personal growth opportunities and identity exploration and formation that come from students going to school away from home.” He said that the University has provided education options for students to choose from, including online-only, hybrid and in-person learning.

Thomson also highlighted the advantages of Willamette’s small size brings: “Our size also allows us to adapt our instruction, support and services in ways that are more difficult for larger institutions.”

In attempting to make in-person classes safe for the Willamette community, Thomson said that Williamette is “following CDC (Center for Disease Control), OHA (Oregon Health Authority) and HECC (Higher Education Coordinating Commission) guidance for how to reopen for in-person instruction,” and that the ROC is contact with peer institutions sharing best practices. The manifestation of these guidelines can be seen in the Willamette policies of reducing density in classrooms, enhancing cleaning stations and requiring that face masks be worn in public campus space.

Although campus is closed to visitors and there are signs denoting such, members of the general public have been seen on campus grounds. While there is not an official policy listed on Willamette’s website, “We are encouraging the community to enact the motto ‘if you see something, say something,’” Thomson said, “Our suggestion is to be kind and direct: Assume [sic] best intentions, do not shame, we are all learning to navigate this new environment.” He also suggested calling campus safety or filling out an incident report on the student affairs website if a Willamette community member does not feel comfortable confronting an outside visitor.

Willamette asked students to quarantine for 14 days before coming back onto campus, though the ROC decided not to strictly enforce this. Thomson pointed to the CDC and OHA not universally recommending or requiring quarantining. Thomson said, “a number of students have jobs on which they depend for income or are otherwise unable to comply with this request. To mandate this would potentially mean a loss of income for some students.”

Students are required to check their own symptoms every day, which can be done by using the Campus Clear app. However, the ROC has also decided against strictly enforcing students to self-monitor symptoms. Regarding this decision, Thomson said: “We’ve heard the call for the university ‘mandating’ compliance with a number of things. Things are very different on campus this year, and our returning students especially are experiencing that as somewhat jarring. If we are to successfully remain in residence this year, we must garner the collective support of our community to enact the dozens of mitigation strategies put in place. Certainly if there are policy violations, we want to know and will follow up appropriately.”

Although the ROC recently allowed students living on campus to attend some or all classes remotely, some students have reported faculty putting pressure on them to attend class in-person. “Faculty have been instructed that they must make allowances for remote attendance in all but a small number of classes,” Thomson responded, “advisors may be making recommendations about which classes would provide a better learning experience in person…In all cases, though, this remains the student’s choice. If a student believes they will receive some kind of negative consequence for attending remotely they should share this concern with their respective Dean.”

COVID-19 disproportionally affects Black and Indigenous people and people of color, and the Willamette protocols for returning to campus states that this fact will “guide us in our reopening efforts.” Thomson said: “The decision not just to reopen but to offer a hybrid learning option for students is the ‘procedure that was selected’ that tangibly supports our most vulnerable populations.” He points to access to housing, food, internet, health care, a kind and caring community and the ability for people to be their authentic selves as “components of the Willamette experience that many take for granted when the reopening question is only considered from the perspective of the academic experience we provide.”

Concern was brought up by Willamette alumni in an open letter writing, “[T]he firing of custodial staff at the end of May casts doubt not only on the university’s ability to keep campus safe, but also their willingness to do so.” Regarding the current status of custodial workers, Thomson writes, “We are working with ACS (American Cleaning Solutions) to clean our facilities. They are focused on sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces and are prioritizing cleaning for health.” Regarding protections for the custodial staff Thomson says, “ACS provides the appropriate protective equipment for their staff.”

Another concern for many members of the community is the impact reopening Willamette will have on the greater Salem community. According to Shawn Hubler of the New York Times, towns surrounding college campuses have all seen COVID cases surge- “places including Boone County, Mo., home to the University of Missouri-Columbia; Story County, Iowa, home to Iowa State; and Harvey County, Kan., home to Bethel College.” Regarding mitigating risks to the broader Salem community, Thomson said that one of the most important ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home when you are ill. “Willamette has been in regular contact with Salem Health as a part of their Community Task Force since March,” Thomson continued, “Salem Hospital continues to have ample capacity in their hospital to manage any surge in cases.”

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, Thomson said that CDC guidance requires that person to isolate from others. “In the case that a student has a roommate or is otherwise unable to isolate in their current space, Willamette will prioritize the health of the student and the community by moving the affected person to a designated isolation space on campus set up to support them while ill,” Thomson said, “There are several isolation spaces identified on campus, each with the capacity to hold between 10 and 20 students.”

Though privacy laws require Willamette not to share any identifying information about a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, moving a student from a dorm area may result in the student’s privacy being compromised. Thomson said: “We ask that all community members be mindful of the privacy of anyone needing to isolate or quarantine throughout this process.”

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