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Health and safety first as SOU students resume academic journey

It was only a month ago that the number of COVID-19 cases in Oregon was below 8,000 and the number in Jackson County was just under 100. The sobering reality of the times is that both of those totals have since doubled.

I continue to be grateful that our area in general and Southern Oregon University in particular have thus far avoided the brunt of this pandemic. But maintaining our relative safety during these challenging times requires flexibility and constant re-evaluation.

We had planned as recently as the start of this month to reopen our campus this fall with as many in-person courses as possible, augmented with online or remote delivery options. We now recognize that in many respects, the virus is still calling the shots. Our plans continue to call for a hybrid academic model for fall term, and it is likely that only those courses that cannot effectively be delivered remotely will be offered in-person.

The safety of our students, employees and surrounding communities are our top priorities. We want our 5,000 or so students to continue their studies at SOU from whatever locations they and their families feel the safest and most likely to contribute to their success. We want our 600 or so employees to continue delivering outstanding academic and student support services from settings in which their health and well-being can be safeguarded. And we want our communities in this beautiful region to enjoy the many benefits of our university and not feel threatened by an overly optimistic reopening of our campus.

All of us at SOU are working together to address this incredibly fluid situation, and we all have shared in the hardships it has caused. Our never-ending commitment is to ensure the academic growth of our students as they prepare themselves for meaningful lives of purpose.

We ask ourselves daily, “what will fall really look like?” Neither Siri nor Alexa can tell us, but we are taking every possible precaution to reduce risks and the numbers of COVID-19 cases while maintaining our campus environment. Our students will have access to a wide range of services, both in-person and remotely, and student-athletes will be able to use our facilities — under strict guidelines — to prepare themselves for the time when competition resumes. We will have lower population densities and improved safety precautions in our residence halls, and face coverings will be the norm across campus — required inside and outside whenever adequate social distancing is not possible.

Our planning teams continue to develop academic and student experiences for fall term that will ensure the progress of our students and improve the quality of the courses that must be delivered remotely. Many of our faculty members are engaged in professional development and training this summer to enhance the remote and hybrid learning environment at SOU.

We learned much from our quick transition to remote operations for spring term and are encouraged by the resiliency of our entire campus community. We will be prepared with a variety of teaching formats that will challenge and reward our students, and we look forward to a robust fall term — even if it is different than usual.

Finally, the strong working relationships we have with state and local agencies are essential to address the educational and public health issues facing us. We are in this together, and we will always put the health and safety of our students, employees and communities first.

Linda Schott is president of Southern Oregon University.