LA GRANDE — After spending more than a year dealing with in-person and hybrid learning schedules, officials with Eastern Oregon University are excited at the prospect of life resuming a more normal look on campus in 2021-22.
Classes were set to begin on campus Monday, Sept. 27. The school started its 93rd academic year on Sept. 20 with the annual Convocation, while students started moving back into residence halls on Sept. 22.
“This fall we are planning to be 100% in-person, in the classroom,” said Tim Seydel, Eastern’s vice president for university advancement. “Students in the classes, being taught directly in-person with faculty? You bet.”
Despite the seemingly return to normal appearance of things on campus, it doesn’t mean Eastern isn’t taking the continuing pandemic seriously.
“We’re following all the state and federal guidance. The big things that people would notice on campus is that we are continuing to wear face masks inside and in classes,” he said. “Students would be required to wear a face mask in class, and then outside where physical distancing is not really possible.”
In June, the school announced that it would require all students and employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Seydel said response to that mandate was, overall, fairly positive.
“Everybody was expecting something like that to come, especially when we were seeing requirements other institutions,” he said. “Ours was unique in that we were requiring the vaccination, or an exemption, contingent upon FDA full approval of the vaccine. That kicked in late last month, and now people have until Oct. 22 to complete either getting their vaccinations or having an exemption on file.”
Seydel said students made it clear they wanted to get the on-campus, in-person experience.
“Everybody wants to get to that place where we can have a safe, healthy, active campus environment,” he said. “Because really what we’re here for is the students.”
Seydel said handling vaccine exemptions is not new for the university. For years, schools have been required to have vaccine exemptions for students as it relates to other vaccines. Eastern has been following that same process for COVID exemptions.
“The university makes that decision, but we follow state and federal guidelines,” Seydel said. “So the exemptions we’re currently allowing are medical and nonmedical exemptions, including religious exemptions. Those have to meet federal standards.”
Seydel said students seeking exemptions go through Student Affairs and employee cases are handled by the school’s Human Resources department.
“With nonmedical exemptions, there’s an education module they need to take part in and gather some more information from them,” he said. “And then they either have an exemption on file or they’re vaccinated.”
Seydel said there’s plenty of ongoing conversations on campus about the potential impact Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate might have on the university. Brown announced in August that health care workers and educators, support staff and volunteers needed to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval, whichever is later.
“A lot of people assume that means you must be vaccinated,” he said. “And it’s really you either need to be vaccinated or have an exemption on file. And if you go through the exemption process and you’re denied there are some guidelines.”
Early projections on fall enrollment have the school flat or possibly down 1% — numbers the school is pleased with, Seydel said.
“We’re feeling pretty good about that given all the things we’re working with and dealing with,” he said.
Seydel said Eastern Oregon received money from the state’s Strong Start Program to help provide support services for students who experienced gaps in their education during 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
“You didn’t have that regular contact with students at the high school level (during distance learning). So those students struggled,” he said. “And then of course they struggled with getting simple things, like did they have a laptop that could actually work? Did they have decent internet access where they could do their classes at home? What was the environment like?”
Seydel also said some students struggled with parents who lost jobs, forcing the student to find work or help care for siblings.
“So they’re going to go to college, how do we help them when they get here and provide support services for them,” he said. “We’re starting in on that right now. It’s been exciting to help keep students engaged and recreate those pathways to college.”