In response to Omicron, Willamette University moves large classes online for start of spring semester

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A two-week “quiet period” at the university will begin on January 10, with classes and lectures held online and students encouraged to limit in-person interactions. University president Steve Thorsett said the changes will help the university identify and contain cases of Covid acquired during the winter break, as the Omicron variant is expected to become dominant in the United States.

Willamette University Salem Campus (Amanda Loman / Salem Reporter)

Willamette University will be moving many of its courses online during the first two weeks of the spring semester in hopes of limiting the spread of the Omicron variant once students return from winter break.

The university’s Covid advisory team announced its plans on Friday evening, following a state press conference where health officials announced a massive push to administer Covid booster vaccines. Health officials have warned that new modeling shows the most transmissible variant will quickly become dominant in Oregon and lead to 3,000 Oregonians hospitalized with Covid in early February – more than double the peak during the delta’s surge to the end of summer.

Steve Thorsett, president of Willamette University, said university leaders discussed changing the start of the spring semester for several days before the state’s announcement.

“People should plan to be flexible as we learn more about Omicron over the next two weeks in case state or federal guidelines change,” Thorsett said. “It was mainly about signaling flexibility. “

He said Willamette made similar changes when the students returned in person in the fall of 2020 before vaccines became widely available.

“We wouldn’t do it this year without the level of uncertainty everyone has about where we will be with Omicron,” he said.

The two-week “quiet period” for Salem students will begin on January 10, when students return from winter vacation. Larger classes at the university will be held online. Thorsett said this includes most law school courses, as well as larger lecture halls for undergraduates.

Students will be encouraged to limit in-person interactions, the email says.

Lab, studio and field lessons will continue in person, as will college sports, Thorsett said.

Thorsett said Willamette is in a good position to contain the spread of the virus on campus, but university leaders want to monitor students after they return from winter vacation to “make sure we don’t have a large pool of coronavirus. hidden on campus “.

“We’re pretty confident in our ability to manage through monitoring and testing,” he said. Willamette has recorded a total of 50 Covid cases among students and staff at its Salem campus and five at its Portland campus since August 1. That’s about 2,200 students and 700 employees.

The two-week period also leaves more time for students and employees to receive booster shots, which health officials say is critical to preventing infection with Omicron.

Starting in the fall, Willamette demanded the Covid vaccination for students and employees. Medical and religious exemptions are available, but Thorsett said the campus vaccination rate is high – around 97% in Salem and 99% in Portland.

Thorsett said the university currently has no plans to require callbacks until fall 2022. Some other universities, including Duke, have announced plans to require callbacks before students return from winter vacation. or during the spring semester.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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