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SOU to reopen to in-person classes next fall

Southern Oregon University will return to “primarily” in-person classes and student activities at the start of fall term in September, President Linda Schott announced Wednesday.

According to a news release by the university, the reopening plan will include remote and hybrid alternatives for both academic and student support programs and will be tailored to account for expected COVID-19 restrictions on gathering sizes and public events.

“I have wanted to tell you for almost a year now that we are preparing to fully reopen our campus, and finally I feel confident that I can do so,” Schott said in the release, issued almost a year to the day after she announced that SOU would shift to remote only. “We are in position to begin a return to normalcy as the availability of vaccines expands to include all adults by summer.”

Schott said SOU will consult with Jackson County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority before and during the reopening process and encouraged the SOU community to help keep the COVID-19 caseload down.

“We also recommend that all employees and students receive COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as they are eligible, in accordance with CDC guidelines,” she said. “Vaccination is just one step in our larger effort to keep our community safe, so please be mindful of your personal safety and respect for those around you by wearing masks and avoiding close contact.”

Asked whether the COVID-19 vaccination might be made mandatory for SOU staffers, Neil Woolf, SOU’s vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, said that was likely off the table and indicated that SOU would work with the state’s other public universities in formulating a policy.

“We don’t want to be mandating things related to people’s personal health,” Woolf said. “The conversation will continue through human resources with our unions, but right now there’s no plan to mandate vaccinations. And we’ve had that conversation with other universities throughout Oregon and we’re going to have a shared front on that. So what we do in that regard we’ll do together with the other universities.”

Woolf said the decision to reopen to in-person instruction was made by Schott Tuesday after consulting with other SOU leaders and taking into account the accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccines and “presumed lifting of some of the restrictions” by the Oregon Health Authority.

The feedback he’s received on campus since the decision was announced has been very positive, Woolf said.

“I think by and large, as President Schott alluded to in her email, we’ve been waiting for this opportunity — faculty, staff, students — just so we can kind of say, all right, now we’re back to kind of normal,” Woolf said. “We’ll have some hybrid courses still for various reasons, but this is kind of a big-relief moment for us.”

Regarding the remote and hybrid alternatives alluded to in SOU’s announcement, Woolf said SOU classrooms are being updated with video equipment to make remote learning possible, although whether classes will primarily be streamed live or pre-recorded depends on a host of variables that are still in motion.

One of the potential deciding factors that could alter the classroom experience is class-size restrictions. Local school districts were forced to problem solve the state’s 35-square-feet-per-student guidance before reopening schools, and Woolf said SOU continues to be in talks with the state as it navigates its own reopening.

“That’s actually one of the main questions that we’re having conversations with the Oregon Health Authority about now,” Woolf said when asked about class sizes. “Right now they’ve given us capacity restrictions, and in the current conversations they’re looking to lift those. Now how far they lift those we don’t know yet, but for us at Southern Oregon University we purposely don’t have many large lecture classes, so faculty are able to get to know you by name.”

Schott’s announcement seemed to leave open the possibility that the university could change course should the need arise, but Woolf doubts SOU will have to push back its reopening beyond September.

“It’s possible but not likely,” he said. “There will be some accommodations. So, for example, if I had an accommodation that I needed to work through with our human resources department, we’ll have some of those. But by and large, the in-person experience will happen.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Grounds coffee shop inside the Hannon Library on the SOU campus is closed under COVID-19 restrictions.