The University of Oregon’s law school began its fall semester on Aug. 23, marking a return to mostly in-person classes for the 2021-22 academic year. Despite the law community’s high COVID-19 vaccination rates, some students are dissatisfied with the university’s policies and communication regarding the coronavirus.
Law school dean Marcilynn Burke said 99% of the law community reported their COVID-19 vaccination status by Aug. 30, and 97% of the community reported being vaccinated.
“We have a very high vaccination rate, and we have great compliance with our masking requirements,” Burke said. “Those two things combined are very effective. That's what the public health authorities are telling us is the most effective way to proceed.”
Even with the law school’s high vaccination rate and adherence to university policy, Burke said not everyone in the law school thinks it's safe to be in person. Still, she said, “I believe we’re taking all the necessary and recommended precautions to be able to do that safely.”
Law student Natalie Smith said people have been good about keeping their masks on during classes. But, she said students are still confused about exactly when masks are required.
According to the university’s regulations, masks are always required indoors and outdoors when physical distancing is not possible. The mandate is in accordance with Lane County and Oregon Health Authority guidelines.
UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis said the university is trusting community members to follow public health guidance. Supervisors and instructors may remind students to wear masks and, if necessary, report them to either human resources or student conduct, Jarvis said.
“It’d be just as if anything else in the classroom, if somebody is doing something that they shouldn’t be doing,” Burke said.
Smith said many law school students are confused about UO’s COVID-19 regulations due to the way administration communicates policy changes. With COVID-19 policy constantly in flux and the disconnect between the law school and the main campus, Smith said there’s not always a lot of clarity.
Two of Smith’s five classes were made remote at the request of the professors. Smith said one of her professors moved the course to a virtual platform because he has a 5-year-old who can’t get vaccinated. “It did take some work for him to get approved for that exemption,” she said.
Another one of Smith’s professors, who is 70 years old, is trying to move their class online due to their age, but UO administration has not yet approved the change. The class is supposed to take place in a classroom with no open windows and a maximum occupancy of 24, which is the size of the class including the professor, Smith said.
The university’s regulation no longer requires social distancing either inside or outside since, but UO still recommends practicing social distancing. Smith said many of her peers feel unsafe in an environment where they do not have the option to space themselves out.
The class has requested a room change and currently meets outdoors, Smith said. She said outdoor classes are a regular occurrence this semester.
“We’re scared to go into classrooms and to be there with the door shut and the windows shut,” Smith said. However, she said administration can only do so much to help alleviate students’ discomfort during the pandemic.
“A little more transparency and leniency on behalf of the administration would go a long way in making us feel safer,” Smith said, “but I do recognize that they’re doing their best.”
Correction: The initial version of this story stated that UO's mask policy would be left to faculty enforcement, rather than trusting the community to follow public health guidance. This story has been updated to more accurately reflect UO's stance.