As the winter cold crept in and students traveled home for the holidays, the University of Oregon marked the end of what was a monumental term: the return to in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For winter term, the UO is returning to similar COVID-19 protocols it had in fall. As the term started Jan. 3, UO and Oregon State University are requiring vaccination booster shots as the Omicron variant spreads across the state. Omicron is now the most common variant of COVID-19 and is more transmissible than other variants. Omicron can also “evade immunity conferred by past infection or vaccination,” according to the CDC.
The university extols its COVID protocols, but there were only four days throughout the 10 weeks of fall term on which no one was infected with the virus, according to the university’s COVID-19 data dashboard. As winter term approaches, some students are unsure that the vaccine booster requirements filled with exemptions will do enough to keep the UO community COVID-free.
In fall term, the UO said that it would prioritize a safe return to in-person classes. On Sept. 27, the first day of classes, UO President Michael Schill released a statement promising that the health and safety of the campus community was its “highest priority.”
Most cases have come from students living off campus. Oct. 8 was the highest single-day spread of the term, with 16 UO students reporting COVID-19 cases. According to Lane County data, October was a high month for cases locally — on Oct. 16, around 205 cases were reported per 100,000 people. Individuals ages 20-29 make up 21.5 percent of all cases in Lane County.
The UO claimed to redouble its prevention strategies in preparation for fall term, including mandating mask-wearing, weekly testing for those who remained unvaccinated and physical distancing. According to a statement released by Provost and Senior Vice President Patrick Phillips on Dec, 28, there were no documented cases of classroom-based COVID-19 transmission.
However, Benjamin Smith, a fourth-year journalism student at the UO, says that the administration’s precautions and mandates seemed misleading. Smith is an unvaccinated student for philosophical reasons, and he says his vaccine exemption online form took him less than 20 minutes to fill out.
“You check boxes. I don’t even think there were any short answers,” Smith says. “To me, the university saying there’s a mandate and then following it up with the exemptions seemed to me to be more of a virtue signal.”
The UO required Smith and other unvaccinated students to submit to weekly testing. The testing site, as Smith recalls, was often sparse and he rarely saw a line. More than 700 students on campus are currently unvaccinated out of 21,903 total according to the UO COVID-19 dashboard.
UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard says that the number varied over the course of fall term because students “chose to become vaccinated as the term progressed.” A total of 574 students were tested weekly for exemptions.
Smith received an automated email reminder to be tested weekly because the university urged students to sign up in advance. But he opted for walk-ins. Smith says that when he went into the testing site, he scanned a QR code that opened a survey that asked him to provide some information. It asked if he is a student, what his address was and if he agreed that if he were to test positive for COVID-19, the university could send those results to public health agencies.
He then spit into a small vial and left. But his results sometimes didn’t come in until a day or two later. Smith says that the testing process wasn’t effective.
“Imagine I go in this morning, and I take the test, and then I come to class,” he says. “Then I find out the next day that I’m positive. And I could just as easily have not taken it today. I could’ve taken it on Friday. So this entire week, I could have been an asymptomatic individual.”
The testing process will remain the same winter term, even as Omicron spreads. Testing is available for UO employees, students and the Lane County community and results will be available two to four business days after testing. Students will also have access to an at-home COVID-19 testing kit available for pick-up at the University Health Services Monday through Friday.
Hubbard says that the UO keeps track of tested students through the Monitoring Assessment Program. For students, missing more than one test in a term means being subject to penalties. Smith should be tested weekly. But out of the ten weeks in the term, Smith says he skipped three weeks of testing without any repercussions from the UO, financially or otherwise.
And immunocompromised students like Carey Parker, a third-year psychology student, deal with the consequences. Parker says that she takes COVID-19 precautions very seriously. She takes immunosuppressants for a bone transplant after a spinal surgery, so she is particularly susceptible to the virus. Parker says that the UO didn’t do a great job of informing students about the risks of COVID-19.
“I definitely think it could have been possible for UO to do more,” Parker says. “It was always about safeguarding people external to the university rather than actually showing how students could be a serious risk, too.”
While most of her classes were online during fall term, Parker says she still had some in-person class meetings for smaller classes. Even then, she says she had some issues with lack of social distancing. Though Parker says that she felt a bit better since getting her COVID-19 booster shot, she says that participating in online classes was one of the only options available to feel completely safe.
“A lot of the time, I don’t feel I can trust other students to wear masks properly or stay home when they are feeling ill,” Parker says. “I would be in greater danger to these possible long-term damages if I ever got COVID-19.”
The UO posted signs across campus reminding the face-covering requirement for all faculty, staff and students in an attempt to keep the UO community safe. The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has been responsible for developing and enforcing these standards for students.
If students took issue with an incident outside of the university’s direct control (i.e., someone refusing to wear a mask), they could fill out a “Behavioral Concern Reporting form.” According to Hubbard, the UO received 98 student-related Behavioral Concern Reports, “all of which were reviewed by university staff and followed up on in an appropriate manner, as needed.” Parker says she’s never used this resource and just brought issues up with her instructors.
In winter term, the UO will require staff to provide proof of vaccination and boosters or exemption status, which was not required for the majority of fall term. UO offers exemptions, including non-medical and philosophical, in accordance with Oregon Health Authority guidelines.
Though the UO recently stated that it would continue most of the same protocols from fall into winter term, and that it would require booster shots, Smith says that he feels there is a lack of transparency coming from the university about these state-mandated vaccine exemptions.
“I saw philosophical and religious exemptions, and I thought that was peculiar, right? Because if the goal is to have everyone vaccinated, then having those specific non-medical exemptions,” Smith says, “to me, it seemed hollow.”