August 26, 2020
Dear University of Oregon Colleagues,
I wanted to follow up on President Schill’s recent message about our decision to move largely to remote delivery of courses in the fall with the exception of some labs, studio experiences, and other small classes, where we will provide in-person instruction. This message provides you with some details about the decision-making process, our current status, and some thoughts about the future. I appreciate how important and impactful this decision is to each of you, so I want to be sure to lay out this information fully. We have spent the last few weeks consulting with a wide array of stakeholders from across campus to gather their viewpoints on our best course of action at this time. I also want to take the opportunity to express how grateful I am for the hard work of the entire UO family as we navigate a very dynamic and uncertain situation.
In my July 15 email announcing the August 26 date for a decision on our approach to teaching in the fall, I outlined several criteria that would serve as the basis for decision-making. I want to walk through these so that you are fully informed about our status. Given the highly dynamic situation, this was an imprecise science with no absolute thresholds for decision-making. As such, an assessment was made based on all of the factors, placing more weight on those that impact our ability to protect our community and limit the spread of infection on campus.
1. Local public health status. The primary gatekeepers of our in-person status are Oregon public health officials, who are empowered to determine conditions of our operations based on local and statewide conditions. We are fortunate that the total number of cases is still quite low in our community and that over the past week we have seen a dramatic slowing in the number of cases reported within the county. At the same time, the last few months have shown a disturbing, and volatile, upward trend in cases across the country. This level of uncertainty has without a doubt raised the concern level of members of the UO community.
In contrast, Multnomah County has never successfully transitioned out of Phase I into Phase II, and it appears to be locked in this phase for the foreseeable future. This led us to announce two weeks ago that UO Portland would be remote-only learning except for student access to studio facilities. Monitoring the background level of infection within each UO location will continue to be a primary driver of decisions about campus use as we look toward the future.
Based on the current status of Lane County, we believe we are equipped to offer in-person courses for experiential classes such as labs, studio, and performance-based learning. These courses are best suited for in-person instruction and can be done under carefully controlled parameters. We are looking at ways to expand in-person classes and experiences for new students under the same parameters to help them feel a sense of connection in the transition to college under these most unusual times.
2. Behavioral measures. Controlling the rate of incidence in the community is entirely dependent on controlling the rate of spread. We have seen that systematic implementation of face coverings and social distancing has made a major impact on transmission rates across the country. As you know, since July we have implemented a strong face-covering standard across the campus. We are confident that this aspect of our safety plan can be successfully enacted.
3. Capacity for contact tracing and case management by health authorities. In addition to preventative measures, the most critical activity is to quickly trace any contacts that an infected individual might have had with others, and then quarantine and test those individuals immediately. While Lane County Public Health officials are responsible for all contact tracing activities, we have developed the UO Corona Corps to partner with them to help greatly expand their work. Despite this additional support provided by the UO, the county currently does not have enough contact tracing to deal with a full reopening of in-person instruction. We are fortunate to have a deep and mutually supportive relationship with our local public health officials, and we will continue to work with them to further ramp up contact-tracing capacity to support broader university activities.
4. Regular testing. Testing for the presence of the coronavirus within individuals, especially those implicated via contact tracing, is an important part of the public health response to limit the rate of spread. As we went into spring break, Lane County had the capacity to provide about 100 tests a day. Through the quick work of UO faculty and administrative staff, we purchased equipment that allowed us to partner with McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center to expand that number to 500 a day. That level was sufficient to serve the case-management needs of the county, but is not large enough to implement a wide-scale surveillance testing approach of asymptomatic individuals.
Recognizing this need, within a few short months we stood up a certified lab on campus and equipped it to deliver twice this amount a day. The expanded capacity allows us to implement a coherent move-in strategy for on-campus housing that involves pre-testing of each student, with follow-up testing a few days later, to try to catch any cases that might be missed. We will also be conducting regular follow-up tests of campus residents throughout the term.
We are also working with several other universities to implement testing approaches to increase numbers significantly within a few months. Importantly, we are working with Lane County Public Health to ensure that our testing strategy does not outstrip county contact-tracing capacity. Although we do not currently have the capacity to test broadly across the entire UO community, we are working hard to have this capacity by late fall. While this is an important part of our decision to move to remote this fall, it also portends that we should be in a strong position from a public health standpoint for the winter term, assuming that other health metrics stay in check over that time period.
5. Facilities support. I want to thank all the UO staff involved in providing a safe environment for instruction and other features of on-campus life. These dedicated employees and their work have been central to these efforts. Throughout the spring and summer, three things have occurred in the background to ensure that this is the case. First, we assessed spaces on campus and developed a plan for how they can safely be used. Second, we upgraded a large number of classrooms to include enhanced audio and video support, as well as installing plexiglass shields and other protective elements. Third, we evaluated the HVAC systems of our buildings to implement increased ventilation wherever possible. While the overlap of all the features reduces the total number of available classrooms, it is sufficient to meet our reduced need for in-person instruction and to do so safely. We will continue to upgrade additional spaces in anticipation of expanded use in the winter and beyond.
This safety assessment has also included non-classroom spaces such as the EMU, the Rec Center, and the Knight Library. Each of these spaces has been reorganized and subject to altered usage policies to safely support student use, as well as the faculty and staff who work within these facilities. We have also expanded our cleaning capacity, hand-washing facilities, and implemented other safety procedures to support the broader campus. We see the success of this planning every day in the support provided for a safe environment for expanded research activities on campus. We can effectively use the additional time this fall to ensure that the campus is even better prepared for expanded use this winter.
6. Status of K-12 education. The recent move of local K-12 schools to be remote-only presents additional challenges for faculty, staff, and students with children at home. Reducing the demand for on-campus presence for caregivers provides them with additional flexibility to address their family needs. Our Chief Human Resources Officer reminded all UO staff recently to engage in conversations with supervisors and staff on how to find work-life balance in these turbulent times, something I hope we are all doing.
7. National landscape of university reopenings. While not explicitly one of our local decision criteria, my July letter did point to the fact that we would have the chance to observe the ability of semester schools to successfully open. Right now, it is admittedly something of a mixed bag. Rapid failures, such as what we have seen at the University of North Carolina, Alabama, and Notre Dame, provide a clear signal of concern. Other schools, such as Michigan State, have quickly dialed back in-person plans in the last two weeks. Yet some schools, such as our Pac-12 peers University of Arizona, Arizona State, and University of Colorado, remain on track. But their academic years have just begun. So overall, we have not had quite enough time to see what works and what doesn’t, which suggests additional caution is warranted for the fall.
As we move forward, we will continue to evaluate our plans and responses to other important drivers, such as student off-campus behavior, which has already been a challenge for many other universities. In addition to a natural focus on instruction, it is vital for all of us not to backslide on the progress we have made on opening up the campus to research, creative activities, and expanded campus access for faculty and staff to support their scholarly and professional work. I appreciate the work that every unit on campus has put into resumption plans that allow them to continue to serve the mission of the university following the best guidance in ways that work for each unit.
Our approach to fall and the decisions behind it have been by no means easy. While the health and safety of all members of our community are of utmost importance, there is no denying that maintaining things may come at a substantial cost if students decide that we are not delivering an experience for which they are interested in paying. Such are the times we live in now; there are no perfect choices here. I know that we are all committed to partner together to face the ongoing challenges that the pandemic continues to present.
In the coming weeks, we will continue to consult with stakeholders to update our plans and modify schedules as needed. Our UO Course Catalog is expected to be available to students on September 4, and I will send a message to all faculty and GEs next week to lay out the resource bank we have developed to assist everyone in the delivery of quality remote instruction for fall, as well as an updated FAQ to help answer emerging questions.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope all of you and your families are healthy and safe. Take care.
Provost and Senior Vice President