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A sign reminding people to wear their masks sits outside the EMU on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, Ore. on September 24, 2021. As students come back to campus, the University of Oregon community is navigating moving forward with COVID still as a concern (Isaac Wasserman/ Emerald)

Editor's note: this story was updated on Sept. 27 to reflect that 96% of students are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It was also updated to clarify that students cannot drink or eat in class.

Most University of Oregon students have not set foot inside a classroom since winter 2019. A year-and-a-half later, there’s a buzz of excitement among both new and returning students, as well as instructors and staff members.

But Oregon has seen over 300 thousand COVID-19 cases and over 3,000 deaths throughout the pandemic. Faculty, staff and the campus community weighed in on what has changed in the past 18 months and what to expect from UO as it tries to strike a balance between safety and its stated purpose of “educating the whole person.”

Shots, shots, shots

The return to mostly in-person operations at UO this fall has hinged on COVID-19 safety. UO president Michael Schill made vaccinations a key component to campus safety plans, announcing in May that all students and faculty who do not receive exemptions must be fully vaccinated before returning to campus.

As of Sept. 26, about 89% of UO students have reported their vaccination status. Of those who reported, about 96% are fully vaccinated against COVID-19,  according to the Vaccine Dashboard. Among employees, about 95% have reported their status and about 95% of those are fully vaccinated. 

For the small percentage of students and employees who are exempt from receiving the vaccine, UO will employ education and testing to mitigate the spread, UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard said.

Everyone seeking an exemption must watch an educational video, acknowledge and accept the risks outlined and agree to additional health requirements including weekly COVID-19 testing, mandatory isolation if exposed to COVID-19 and possible exclusion from certain activities, Hubbard said in a statement to the Emerald.

As all requirements are the same no matter the reason for the exemption, UO did not track how many of those exemptions were medical versus religious or philosophical, Hubbard said.

Lane County Public Health spokesperson Jason Davis said he expects UO’s high vaccination rate to largely protect the campus from an outbreak. Should an outbreak occur on campus, UO has mechanisms in place to mitigate the spread.

If an asymptomatic student suspects they have been in close contact with someone who is sick, UO Health Center’s assistant vice president Deb Beck said they should go get tested. UO’s Monitoring and Assessment Program will provide free saliva-based tests.

If a student tests positive, UO’s Corona Corps will step in and assist with the isolation process, Beck said. The Graduate Village apartment complex will be the primary area for isolating students, which has caused frustration among its residents.

If the situation dictates it, Beck said the university will transport them to a hospital.

From the classroom to the weight room

While COVID-19 restrictions will be more relaxed this year, some rules remain. UO requires face coverings indoors in all facilities, regardless of vaccination status. This means students should expect to wear a mask in all classes, regardless of the number of students or size of space.

Students can receive mask exemptions through the Accessible Education Center, according to UO’s COVID-19 dashboard. If approved, students will receive an official letter displaying the exemption and will have to show that letter to their instructors.

UO encourages symptom self-checks and personal hygiene, asking students and staff to stay home if they feel sick. Masks and sanitizing stations are available across campus and in classrooms. In an Around the O article, UO said that it is working to maximize airflow in classrooms. But Avinnash Tiwari, an English and composition department instructor and the president of UO’s United Academics union, said these precautions come with complications.

In some classrooms, open windows are essential to ventilation, Tiwari said. But sometimes those windows are old and damaged. “And what happens when it gets cold?” he said.

Tiwari said ventilation is one of the focal concerns for members of UA. Members are also worried about instructing students who may need to take time away from class due to sickness, he said. UO has not given overarching guidance for instructing students in quarantine or isolation because each class is different, Tiwari said.

“Ultimately, what I think is going to happen is that a lot of faculty members are going to do the extra work of preparing for two modalities of both teaching in person and being prepared for remote,” he said. “Because, at the end of the day, we care that our students get what they're supposed to get out of our classes.”

Tiwari said he is confident that instructors will support students who need to take time away from class, but he worries about the increased labor for those instructors. He said he is actively trying to find ways to reduce the weight elsewhere.

Because of the high vaccine uptake and aggressive safety protocols compared to other universities nationwide, Tiwari said UO is in a good position to have a successful term.

Student hubs like the Rec Center, the Erb Memorial Union and libraries provide community, but can come with a risk. The Rec “is going to look a little bit more like it did prior to the pandemic,” director Lynn Nester said.

The Rec will not require reservations, capacity is less limited than last year, locker rooms are open and classes are mostly in-person, Nester said. The Rec encourages users to sanitize their work areas, and employees will still monitor for capacity and cleanliness.

Face coverings are required at all times at the Rec, and it has stopped using hand scanners. Nester said the goal is to offer the advantages of the Rec while following COVID-19 guidelines.

If guidelines were to change, Nester said the Rec is ready to adapt since it implemented new procedures at different points over the last year-and-a-half. Over the course of the year, it moved from normal operations to an outdoor tent with workout equipment to requiring reservations indoors to temporarily lifting the mask mandate.

“I think that's something that we can institute quicker than we did last year,” Nester said.

UO libraries will be open to students, staff and faculty. Only the Allan Price Science Library requires key card access.

The EMU is open as usual, no check-in required, and is hosting in-person events like Ducks After Dark, open houses and activity fairs. Its website features a running estimate of how many people are at the EMU to help people decide if they want to visit.

Re-building community in the dorms

Editor’s note: Two RAs were anonymously interviewed for this story. Anonymity was granted to protect the sources’ job security, as the RA contract instructs RAs not to respond to requests from the media. Abby Sourwine works as an RA for UO. She did not contribute reporting to this section of the story.

Last year was challenging for UO’s Resident Assistants. Not only were they performing their normal duties, such as enforcing noise restrictions and helping students with on-campus life, but they also had to do their best to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

The first RA interviewed said that “everyone was pretty beat down by spring term” from the extra work and being understaffed, but they are excited for this coming year. They said they are excited to be living in Eugene and working with residents in a less restrictive way.

The second RA interviewed said they feel more confident going into this year. Relaxed COVID-19 restrictions will make the social part of the job easier, which they said is a good thing for morale because citing COVID-19 violations took a lot out of them and felt very punitive.

Not only were RAs taking on more than they wanted, but the second RA said they didn’t even know what they would be taking on.

“The burden of enforcing COVID policies and protocols rested on the shoulders of ours,” they said. “It wasn't really properly communicated that we would be the gatekeepers of campus safety regarding COVID.”

However, both RAs and UO residence life director Anna Schmidt-MacKenzie anticipate that communication will be better this year. Even though COVID-19 guidelines change, Schmidt-MacKenzie said UO has a year of experience adapting to changes under its belt.

“[Adapting] seemed extraordinarily hard the first time around,” Schmidt-MacKenzie said. “I think people are generally excited to redefine how we engage with each other.”

But returning to campus will not be a breeze, both RAs said. The first RA said, in addition to having over 1,000 more students in the dorms, there will be RAs who haven’t even set foot on campus. Not only will freshmen be learning how to navigate campus, but so will the RAs they look to for guidance.

“That's a weird thing to be working with someone that's never even stepped in a dorm, and they’re a housing authority person,” the first RA said. “They’ve been a college student because they’ve taken college classes, but they’ve never been a college student.”

Schmidt-MacKenzie highlighted how the university relaxed COVID-19 restrictions this year. Students will be allowed to have guests in their room, lounge capacity will be greater and there will be no regular testing. Only unvaccinated students in the dorms — about 200, Schmidt-MacKenzie said — will be subject to regular testing.

The relaxed rules will not only make enforcement easier for RAs, but they will be able to better build community among residents, the second RA said, which is important to them. They said they want to help the incoming class that missed out on social interactions during online high school.

“I really want to help cultivate that type of social community,” the second RA said. “It doesn't necessarily make up for lost time, but I think helps to reignite that type of social belonging.”