The University of Oregon campus sat for nearly two years, nearly silent and brooding. But on Sept. 27, every pathway on 13th Avenue was filled with laughter and chattering from incoming students. Beneath the joy of reuniting with friends, professors and staff, a virus still runs, like an undercurrent, through the veins of university hallways.
The university has shifted from the remote learning it implemented in March 2020 to fully in-person instruction for fall term. Requirements and safety precautions that the UO has implemented claim to prioritize campus community safety, but the pandemic isn’t over for some students and staff who don’t feel comfortable with vaccine exemption loopholes and packed in-person classrooms and lecture halls.
The UO graduate employee union, the GTFF, has been using social media, like Twitter and Instagram, to highlight graduate employee experiences on a newly crowded campus and the lack of social distancing and ventilation in classrooms
One graduate employee who is uneasy about the upcoming school year is Jessica Reanne, a fifth year Ph.D student in the department of political science. She says she’s been skeptical of the university’s decisions regarding COVID-19 protocols since last year, when the UO waited to confirm that courses would be remote.
“Last fall, we watched the university take so long to make the call that classes would be remote,” Reanne says. “It was delayed so long that we had a bunch of students here trapped in leases. That hurt a lot of people.”
This year, Reanne says she was set to help teach a class with a professor who planned to record lectures so that students, or graduate employees like Reanne, could watch safely from home. However, the university decided that recording lectures would not be possible, so she switched her class to one completely remote.
And while the UO promises safety as a priority, more than 800 of 21,775 students walking on campus grounds are unvaccinated, pardoned by exemptions — which are allowed for medical, religious, philosophical or “other non-medical reasons.” Since the UO is a public university, it must include these exemptions from required immunizations in accordance with Oregon law.
However, at the University of Washington, philosophical exemptions are no longer options for students or personnel since Washington passed a bill in 2019 removing those options. Students can only apply for medical or religious exemptions, and those who request them have to meet with a medical provider to sign off on an exemption form.
The UO requires students and staff to prove they are fully vaccinated, but the exemption process is easy and quick. It requires students to fill out one form indicating that the student has completed a module on the risks of remaining unvaccinated. When a student clicks on the exemption form it becomes clear that students really don’t have to do the module, they just need to click a button that says they did.
In just two clicks, a name, student identification number and the date, finalized with a signature, any student can return to campus. They also don’t need to meet with a medical provider, and according to University of Oregon spokesperson Kay Jarvis, students also don’t need to indicate what kind of exemption they are seeking.
The vaccination submission process is also just as informal. Students need to send in only one photo of a vaccination card to attend classes. But Jarvis says that “every vaccination record/submission is verified by UHS staff,” though she did not clarify what that verification process looks like.
If they did not comply with vaccine requirements by the day classes started Sept. 27, students risked a registration hold on Tuesday, Sept. 28, and disenrollment from university classes at the end of week 1, according to a Sept. 13 university press release.
But while students are required to provide proof of vaccination, faculty do not. Jarvis says that they only need to attest to whether or not they received the COVID-19 vaccine, but the university does have the right to check documentation. UO did terminate some employees who did not fill out the form, though Jarvis did not provide a specific number.
Jarvis says fewer than 10 students were disenrolled from fall classes for non-compliance. But students who registered late for classes were given until Oct.15 to comply with the vaccination requirement before they’d be subject to disenrollment. The students who were given an extension are currently attending in-person classes with the requirement that they submit to weekly testing.
The UO created a list of COVID-19 precautions to keep students safe, including mandatory face coverings, symptom screening and contact tracing. But Reanne says that the university can’t always enforce the regulations they’ve put in place to uphold student and staff safety. As a solution, Reanne suggests that the UO offer more flexibility in its policies so that students and staff can choose to return as they feel safe.
“We’re in full capacity lecture halls where there’s no opportunity for social distancing,” she says. “Professors are allowed to take their mask off if they’re more than six feet away from the first student in their classroom. We’re rushing so quickly to get back that they’re not doing it safely. We’ve got policies, but whether or not they’re being enforced is really difficult.”
Reanne says she can’t afford to teach in-person because she has a 5-month-old baby at home. She adds that being able to return at a rate that each person feels comfortable with would be the most ideal outcome, rather than rushing students and professors back into classrooms.
“It seems like they are rushing to go back to everything as normal,” Reanne says. “There are other people, like myself, who really can’t be back. The pandemic really isn’t over for us, you know. We’ve got vulnerable people in our lives.”