College life will look a lot different when students return to school in the fall, with students being asked to stay 6 feet apart and many traditional campus activities off limits.
“The guidelines make it very clear” that campus life will indeed be different this fall, Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said.
College classrooms have to follow general pandemic capacity guidelines for their locations. That means no more than 25 people in a room for counties in the Phase 1 opening category and no more than 50 people for all other counties. Colleges must rearrange classrooms to allow 6 feet of social distancing and 35 square feet per person of space.
That’s going to make the big lecture classes with hundreds of students crammed together off limits for the duration of the pandemic. Stadiums filled with screaming football or basketball fans are out. Arts performances will have to be rejiggered.
If 6 feet of distancing isn’t possible, plastic or other barriers are to be used and face masks required. Face coverings are recommended even for spaces where distancing is achieved.
The guidelines, issued Friday by the commission, were crafted with the Oregon Health Authority and apply to all public colleges including community colleges and are effective June 14. They are designed to help tamp down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which already has killed more than 170 Oregonians.
Cannon said “each college and university will have the flexibility to determine when students may return to campus.”
Colleges, like K-12 schools, have been teaching students via distance learning since March. That pivot “required a quick and extraordinary transformation,” Cannon noted.
Colleges are digesting the new rules and those in Multnomah County are waiting for information on when the county will start Phase 1 opening.
The new guidelines said that, for colleges with residential students, dorm rooms can’t have more than two students and must allow 64 square feet per resident.
Cannon said that most typical double dorm rooms would still be able to accommodate two students, but most triples would probably have to be reduced to two residents.
“We don’t know yet what residence hall interest levels will be,” he said.
The guidelines said that in learning situations “with higher risk of spread, such as laboratories, computer labs, music/performance classes, studios, and locker rooms, (colleges must) implement enhanced measures such as greater physical distancing, physical barriers (e.g. clear plastic), increased fresh air ventilation, moving outdoors, and enhanced cleaning measures as feasible.”
There are detailed requirements for students in health care professions or other hands-on career and technical education classes.
Local community groups will continue to be locked out of college campuses. College classrooms, theaters, athletic facilities, art galleries and other spaces are frequently used for public gatherings, but the guidelines say college spaces can “be open only for official college or university business.” There are exceptions if no other venues are available and groups can adhere to coronavirus safety requirements.
Cannon admitted this rule “will inhibit some of the community activities” that happen on campuses across the state.
Much of the guidelines are standard pandemic protocol, advising frequent hand washing, not allowing people to come to work or class if they are ill and requiring them to self-isolate if they know they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. The colleges will have to provide space for students to isolate if the need arises. Colleges must have a communicable disease plan in case COVID-19 flares up on campus.
Institutions are required to clean and disinfect daily in places where there is activity.
The guidelines are similar to but much less detailed than those for K-12 schools issued by the Oregon Department of Education issued on June 10.
Colleges must also have a written plan to show how the school is meeting the guidelines and should post it on its web page, the guidelines said.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is expected to issue an executive order soon on higher education and COVID-19, replacing the earlier one that was effective through June 13.
Brown said in a statement: “Each institution, each campus, and each building is different, and it’s critical that the implementation of this public health guidance be informed by direct community feedback. But with safeguards in place, Oregon’s great colleges and universities can return to fulfilling their missions in pursuit of learning, research, and achievement.”